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Professor sees payoff at last

As the Cassini spacecraft runs rings around Saturn, Heidi Manning is watching with glee after spending the last seven years itching to see the fruits of her labor.

As the Cassini spacecraft runs rings around Saturn, Heidi Manning is watching with glee after spending the last seven years itching to see the fruits of her labor.

Cassini began sending back close-up images of Saturn's rings Thursday morning.

However, it was an event around 11 p.m. Wednesday that had Manning, an associate professor of physics at Concordia College, glued to the NASA channel on the big-screen TV at the college's Ivers Science Building.

After slipping through the gap in Saturn's rings and into orbit, Cassini fired an engine and opened the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer.

The sensing instrument will help scientists learn more about the atmospheres of Saturn and its largest moon, Titan.


Manning tested and calibrated the instrument at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland from 1995 to 1997. She left NASA for Concordia just before Cassini launched in October 1997.

Since then, Manning has been monitoring Cassini's progress, waiting anxiously for the day when the tool would be used.

"It is always kind of nerve-racking, because there are so many things that can go wrong and those systems are so complex," she said.

"It was just kind of a relief to actually see it get there," she added. "The orbit insertion is the real tricky part because, with the Mars program, that's usually where the spacecraft had problems."

According to NASA's Web site, the 20-pound instrument will measure the composition and structure in the upper atmosphere of Titan and the magnetosphere of Saturn, along with the environments of Saturn's icy satellites and rings.

The mission will allow Cassini to dip into the upper atmosphere of Titan about 30 times, Manning said.

Scientists are interested in the cloud-covered moon because it may provide clues about Earth's atmosphere 4.5 billion years ago and the chemical processes that sparked life on Earth, Manning said. Titan's atmosphere has about 1.5 times the pressure of Earth's atmosphere and consists of 90 percent nitrogen, compared to 78 percent nitrogen in Earth's atmosphere.

Manning also worked on a similar instrument, the gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, which is aboard the Huygens probe. Cassini will send the probe into Titan's atmosphere in January.


The probe mission is particularly exciting because it will give scientists their first look at what makes up Titan's surface, said Paul Hardersen, an assistant professor in the Department of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.

"It should be very interesting," he said.

Manning's colleagues at Goddard have invited her to return to Maryland to analyze the data as it arrives. The Fergus Falls, Minn., native also will work with the European space program to review data from the Huygens probe as it's released to the public.

For now, though, Manning - who is in the middle of painting her house - is simply enjoying Cassini's show.

"It's been dormant, just kind of in an idle state for seven years, and now it finally gets to where it's supposed to go," she said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528

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