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Orion the Hunter is a constellation.
A seven-year journey is nearly over as NASA's Cassini spacecraft is arriving at Saturn later today. The spacecraft will fire its main engine for 96 minutes beginning at 0236 UTC (10:36 pm EDT), which will put it into orbit around Saturn. Scientific data from the spacecraft will arrive on Earth about 4 hours later, and the first photographs will be returned 6 hours after that, at 1239 UTC (8:39 am EDT). As Cassini is performing these operations, the scientific equipment will be running, gathering as much data as possible on this extremely close pass.
NASA researcher Marc Cohen thinks that a permanent base on the Moon might not be the right way to get started - in the beginning, you've got to stay mobile. Cohen is proposing that NASA consider lunar bases that can move on wheels, or even legs. This would increase landing zone safety, provide equipment redundancy, and allow explorers to survey many sites of scientific interest. There are many challenges with this idea too, however, including constant repairs in the vacuum of the lunar surface, and carrying enough radiation protection to keep the astronauts safe.
Orion the Hunter is perhaps the best-known constellation in the sky, well placed in the winter for observers in both the northern and southern hemispheres, and instantly recognisable. Just below Orion's belt (three distinctive stars in a row), the hilt of his sword holds a great jewel in the sky, the beautiful Orion Nebula. Bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, the nebula, also known as Messier 42, is a wide complex of gas and dust, illuminated by several massive and hot stars at its core, the famous Trapezium stars.
For astronomers, Orion is surely one of the most important constellations, as it contains one of the nearest and most active stellar nurseries in the Milky Way, the Galaxy in which we live. Here tens of thousands of new stars have formed within the past ten million years or so - a very short span of time in astronomical terms. For comparison: our own Sun is now 4,600 million years old and has not yet reached half-age. Reduced to a human time-scale, star formation in Orion would have been going on for just one month as compared to the Sun's 40 years.
Today is the day that Cassini is scheduled to make its arrival at Saturn, flying close to the planet and threading between two of its ring systems. Controllers have released this natural colour image of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The Moon is surrounded by a thick atmosphere rich in organic molecules, which give it this featureless orange glow. Cassini will get a much better view soon, though, as it will make its first close flyby in just a few days. It will release the Huygens probe in early 2005 which will actually land on its surface and give scientists a better idea of what's beneath those thick clouds.
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