As Galileo looked through his telescope, in 1610, he was surprised to see that Saturn seemed to have objects on either side. As he continued to study this planet - the most distant known at the time - he initially drew it as though it had handles.
With his relatively powerful telescope, Christiaan Huygens (a Dutch astronomer) could see more clearly than Galileo. In 1655, he discovered Saturn's largest moon, called Titan. (Follow the link, for a virtual tour, courtesy NASA).
In 1659, Huygens suggested that Saturn was surrounded by a ring which was thin and flat. Sixteen years later, Jean-Dominique Cassini discovered the planet’s rings were actually divided into two parts - now known as A and B.
Honoring the work of Cassini and Huygens, NASA - partnering with the European and Italian Space Agencies - sent the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn on October 15, 1997. It took seven years for the spacecraft, and its probe, to arrive at their destination.
The first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, Cassini (on a four-year mission) studies the features of the planet’s rings while the Huygens probe (after making a remarkable descent) records surprising images of Titan, largest of Saturn’s dozens of moons.
As Cassini and Huygens continue to explore Saturn and its moons, other space missions continue elsewhere. Hubble, expected to “retire” at the end of 2010, will be replaced with an even more powerful orbiting telescope - the James Webb.
Time, and technology, have proven Galileo right. His legendary words about the Earth (to the inquisitors) - “And yet, it moves” - and his pioneering work with the telescope (which helped him discover Jupiter's four largest moons) form part of the foundation on which today’s space explorations rest.