Saturn Mission Postponed

A rip in the insulation protecting part of the Cassini spacecraft is forcing NASA to postpone launch of the Saturn-bound mission from its original 6 October launch date. Agency officials are hoping that they can repair the damage before the narrow launch window to Saturn closes in early November.

The problem with the $1.4 billion spacecraft came to light last weekend, when technicians noted that the air conditioning unit designed to cool the European Huygens probe, which is attached to the Cassini orbiter, was blowing too hard, NASA and European Space Agency officials told reporters yesterday. An inspection showed that a surge in airflow ripped a piece of insulation designed to protect the probe when it enters the atmosphere of Titan, one of Saturn's moons. As a result, the entire spacecraft must be returned to a processing building at Kennedy Space Center so the probe can be detached from the orbiter and then opened to examine the extent of damage.

NASA officials say it is too early to speculate about when the spacecraft will be ready for launch, but they add that the delay could be as short as a week or 10 days. If the launch date slips beyond 4 November, however, more fuel would be required to propel Cassini to its destination, and the spacecraft would be forced to eat into its precious fuel reserves. That could severely curtail the amount of science Cassini could conduct when it reaches Saturn in 2004. The entire mission will cost $3.3 billion.