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Utah gives double `boost' to Cassini mission

Beyond the thrill of learning about a planetary system nearly a billion miles away, Utahns have a special interest in the Cassini mission to Saturn. The two immense booster rockets that will help get it there were built in Magna and Clearfield by Alliant Techsystems.

The launch vehicle, technically called a Titan IV-B, has two sections.The upper stage is a Centaur rocket built by Lockheed Martin. The lower section has a main stage Titan rocket manufactured by Lockheed Martin with two booster engines, called solid rocket motor upgrades, made by Alliant.

The expendable boosters' graphite epoxy shells were spun in Clearfield and loaded with solid rocket fuel in Magna.

Each booster is 112 feet long and 11 feet across. Each weighs more than 385 tons, of which the solid fuel weighs 344 tons. Together they will deliver 3.4 million pounds of thrust for nearly five minutes, blasting Cassini toward the planet - Venus.

Indeed, the probe will start off seemingly in the wrong direction, heading inward, toward the sun and Venus.

The spacecraft will rely on a slingshot effect to gain enough energy to reach Saturn. It will swing past Venus next April, then circle around the sun and return to Venus again in June 1999 for additional velocity. The next step - a controversial one because Cassini uses deadly plutonium as a power source - will be a loop past Earth in August 1999.

In December 2000, Jupiter gives it another gravity assist, speeding it along to Saturn. The spacecraft arrives at its destination in 2004 and begins to orbit Saturn.

Jeff Foote, Alliant's Titan IV program manager in Magna, said technological advancements that the company brought to the project with its upgraded motors have increased the Titan's lift capability by 25 percent.

Adds Kristi Rollag Wangstad, Alliant's vice president for public affairs, based in Minneapolis, "There's a tremendous amount of excitement . . . particularly when you consider that these new boosters have been 10 years in the making."

The boosters are the only new solid boosters developed in the United States in the past 25 years, she said. "It's because they have such excellent increased capacity that a heavy mission like Cassini, which weighs 12,000 pounds, is viable."