Cassini spacecraft completes death plunge into Saturn

The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini (e-Book)
Cassini's Grand Finale Livestream: Watch Spacecraft Plunge Itself Into Saturn Skies Online
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16 September, 2017

The spacecraft was the first human probe to orbit Saturn, and it did so for 13 years after Cassini slipped into the planet's orbit in 2004.

It all went more or less like NASA had intended.

After a 20-year flight, Cassini was running out of fuel, so NASA made a decision to crash Cassini before letting it remain aloft, where it could have been knocked into Titan, the moon with methane lakes, or Enceladus, the moon with jets of water in its southern pole. But the agency didn't want to risk Cassini accidentally crashing into one of these moons and spreading around Earth microbes. It was the only spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn, and showed the world's rings and moons in vivid detail, unveiling oceans on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbor life.

While a lot of questions were answered because of the spacecraft, scientists were left with many inquiries about Saturn.

NASA's Cassini probe is no more. This disposal method ensures Enceladus and Titan remain pristine for future exploration.

"We've had an incredible 13-year journey around Saturn, returning data like a giant firehose, just flooding us with data", said project scientist Linda Spilker with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "You walk around the downstairs, as you go upstairs, you run your fingers along the banister, you look at your old room and memories across the years come flooding back".

The death of Cassini (Giovanni Domenico Cassini was an Italian mathematician and astronomer, 1625-1711) was actually a radioed suicide command. In April, the mission team maneuvered the spacecraft into its final orbital path around Saturn, known as the "Grand Finale".

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"We're trying to find out exactly what is coming from the rings and what is due to the atmosphere", Hunter Waite, Cassini team lead for the mass spectrometer instrument and an atmospheric scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said at the September 13 news conference. Not long after, accounting for the vast distance the message traveled, the order was received, putting the craft into a suicidal swan dive in which it plummeted into the ringed planet's atmosphere. Its hitchhiking companion, Huygens, landed on the moon Titan in 2005.

The probe beamed its final photos of Saturn to Earth on Thursday.

LASP's contribution to Cassini was its Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph, the imaging system that was a key component of the spacecraft's 12-instrument suite. After nearly 20 years in space, NASA's Cassini spacecraft, carrying the LASP-built UltraViolet Imaging Spectrograph, lost its signal at 5:55 a.m. MDT as it incinerated on a dive toward Saturn. The spacecraft emptied its onboard solid-state recorder of all science data, prior to reconfiguring for a near-real-time data relay during the final plunge, NASA said. It shows Saturn's night side, lit by reflected light from the rings, and shows the location at which the spacecraft would enter the planet's atmosphere. We all realise the absurdity of thinking of machines like we think of people, and to be plunged into sadness when those machines fight to stay alive, beating back desperately - and futilely - against the forces that will eventually send them careening into oblivion.

Yup, that's Earth as seen by Cassini from 1.44 billion kilometres away. That's because of the distance between Saturn and Earth, which spans almost a billion miles.

Chief among the observations being made as Cassini dives into Saturn are those of the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS). We'll receive those signals sent at the speed of light, 52 minutes later.

I told her that Cassini was there now, but not for long, that the probe would crash into Saturn and be gone.


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