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Website of the Week — Cassini Equinox Mission


There's an award for excellence on the Internet. It's called a Webby, and it's presented annually in more than 100 categories.

But unlike the Oscars, only Webby winners are invited to the awards ceremony. They are told to keep their acceptance speeches to five words. Holding a hand-cast statuette that looks something like a coil you might find inside a spaceship, Alice Wessen, screamed, "Go Cassini or bust!" at the 13th Annual Webby Competition a few weeks ago.

Wessen, who manages the Cassini Equinox Mission website for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory was referring to an extension of the four-year probe of Saturn that ended last June. Astronomers hope the Cassini spacecraft - which is still healthy - continues to operate to at least 2017.

Wessen says her job is to share the probe's discoveries with the world.

"We've grouped information about Saturn and its moons in an area called 'Saturn and Its Moons,' and you can just click on, say, 'moons' or 'titan' or 'Saturn' and get a quick interactive [and] dive down deep or just get a little overview if you wish."

Wessen's team constantly updates the site, sometimes several times a day, depending on breaking news from the ringed planet.

"It has a very cool mission simulation called the Cassini Virtual Tour, [or] see where the Cassini spacecraft is in relation to any of the moons or Saturn for any point along the mission for several years."

Visitors can watch an on-site clock tick down to the next encounter. When that happens, Wesson says images are sent back from the spacecraft and posted on the website.

"These are uncalibrated, but we can get them on the site within eight hours of 'Earth received time,' as we call it. And there is a whole host of amateur astronomers out there who love downloading those images and playing around with them."

Other features include a webcast on how flight paths are designed, graphics that detail the anatomy of the spacecraft, and resource materials for classrooms. The site also promotes the 'Cassini Scientist for a Day' essay contest. Students write about the science they'd like to do based on Cassini images. Wessen says the winners are awarded a telephone conference with a mission scientist.

"Generally what's thrilling is that the kids are kind of squealing online. That just tells us that they are delighted to talk to mission scientists, and mission scientists are delighted to talk to them."

The next essay contest is scheduled for September, but Alice Wessen welcomes you aboard Cassini any day.

"We like to think that our public includes the 6-year-olds in all of us, but it also includes Ph.D. world-class scientists who also need information. So we are trying to cover all of it."

Interactive Links

Dive into data about Saturn and its moons here.

Take a virtual tour to view the Cassini spacecraft at any time during several years of the mission. It uses the real data from the mission so you can be a virtual explorer from your desk.

Alice Wessen makes her acceptance speech for the Cassini Equinox Misson Website at the 13th Annual Webby Awards in New York on June 8, 2009. Saturn Equinox Mission won the top science honor for excellence on the Internet.

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