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March 24, 2017

Improved Saturn positions help spacecraft navigation and more

An artists's conception of Saturn and its moons (with moons labeled), seen from above its pole.

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Scientists have used the National Science Foundation's Very Long Baseline Array radio-telescope system and NASA's Cassini spacecraft to measure the position of Saturn and its family of moons to within about a mile -- at a range of nearly a billion miles. This feat improves astronomers' knowledge of the dynamics of the solar system and also benefits interplanetary spacecraft navigation and research on fundamental physics.

The researchers, from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, used the continent-wide VLBA to pinpoint the position of Cassini as it orbited Saturn over the past decade by receiving the signal from the spacecraft's radio transmitter. Combined with information about Cassini's orbit from NASA's Deep Space Network, the VLBA observations allowed the scientists to make the most accurate determinations yet of the position of the center of mass, called the barycenter, of Saturn and its numerous moons.

To learn more about this research, see the National Radio Astronomy Observatory news story Improved Saturn positions help spacecraft navigation, planet studies, fundamental physics. (Date image taken: Unknown; date originally posted to NSF Multimedia Gallery: March 24, 2017)

Credit: B. Kent, A. Angelich, NRAO/AUI/NSF

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