WHEN Giovanni Cassini and Christiaan Huygens peered at Saturn through rudimentary telescopes in the mid-17th century, they had no way of foreseeing the scientific advances that would bring mankind a close-up look at the planet and its remarkable rings some 350 years later.
One suspects that the ancient European astronomers would react in much the same way to images beamed back from the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft as a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who described the pictures as "absolutely mind-blowing."
The school bus-sized spacecraft began beaming back spectacular photos last week as it settled into a pre-programmed orbit around Saturn after a 900-million-mile voyage from Earth that took seven years.
The $3.3 billion mission, which is to last four more years and explore Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is another triumph for unmanned space exploration, in this case a jointly funded project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency.
Coming at the same time that NASA's wheeled rovers navigate the rocky terrain of Mars, the mission is further icing on the space agency's exploration cake. Add the successful space walk by American and Russian astronauts to repair the international space station a day earlier, and it was a good week all around for interplanetary cooperation.
It's hard to imagine a bigger scientific bang for the buck than Cassini-Huygens, which will fly by several of Saturn's 31 moons during its four-year experiment. The piggyback Huygens probe, developed by European space scientists, will attempt to parachute onto the surface of Titan, the only planetary moon in the solar system with a thick atmosphere.
Exploring Saturn is expected to give scientists significant new insights since the planet and its rings exhibit characteristics similar to the creation of the solar system billions of years ago. So much data will be beamed back that one scientist predicted that her grandchildren will someday be analyzing the information.
Launched from Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Oct. 15, 1997, Cassini-Huygens is one more example of the genius of space exploration in which each step of the seven-year mission had to proceed precisely to put the craft upclose and personal with Saturn. Amazingly, the orbital insertion was achieved within one second of a schedule set by scientists almost a decade ago.
Dodging the ice and rocks of the planet's mysterious sharp-edged rings was only the first of a series of feats that should ensure that the spacecraft sends back a rich trove of information that will keep scientists busy for years to come. Giovanni Cassini and Christiaan Huygens would love it.