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Release: Immediate

Gurnett to explore Saturn using NASA's Cassini spacecraft

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- In an era of spectacular space discoveries made almost daily, University of Iowa Professor and Space Physics Researcher Don Gurnett and his colleagues will begin mankind's most ambitious exploration of Saturn, its rings, atmosphere and moons when NASA's Cassini spacecraft is launched on Oct. 6, 1997.

Gurnett, under terms of a $9.6 million NASA contract, is serving as principal investigator for the radio and plasma wave investigation aboard the spacecraft, which is scheduled to reach Saturn on July 1, 2004. He says that Cassini, the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, will make it possible to study the planet's rings, as well as the density and temperature of plasma -- thin, electrically charged gas -- trapped within the magnetosphere, the region influenced by Saturn's magnetic field.

"We'll be able to measure Saturn's powerful radio emissions, as well as its very unusual lightning discharges," said Gurnett, who heads an international team of some 18 co-investigators. William Kurth, UI research scientist, is serving as deputy principal investigator. The instrument, which weighs 86 pounds, was, in large part, constructed at the University of Iowa.

Gurnett notes that some of the most interesting observations may be made at Titan, one of Saturn's moons, which has a nitrogen-rich atmosphere similar to Earth's. "Titan has some of the basic ingredients necessary for life, but they're locked in the deep freeze at about 300 degrees below zero," he said.

Cassini, like NASA's Galileo spacecraft currently orbiting Jupiter and its moons, consists of an orbiter and a probe to sample Titan's atmosphere. Gurnett and his UI colleague Louis Frank used instruments aboard Galileo to make some surprising findings in 1996. Gurnett, for example, found evidence that Ganymede, Jupiter's largest moon, somewhat resembled the Earth in that it has a magnetic field and a magnetosphere. Ganymede is the first moon found to have such characteristics. Frank found that Jupiter's moon Io spews jets of volcanic gases hundreds of miles out into space.