Cassini spacecraft: 'Magnifying glass' at Saturn until end

16 September, 2017, 01:04 | Author: Ora Austin
  • Cassini to End 20-Year Mission With Fiery Crash

It all went more or less like NASA had intended. Perhaps most tantalising, ocean worlds were unveiled by Cassini and its hitchhiking companion, the Huygens lander, on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbour life.

Thank you, Cassini, for launching not just a mission of Saturn discovery, but also a more personal journey for me. But the agency didn't want to risk Cassini accidentally crashing into one of these moons and spreading around Earth microbes. Among other things, the probe discovered water spewing from Enceladus, discovered that Hyperion has a statically charged surface and that Saturn's entire moon system - a virtual mini solar system in itself - exchanges dust and chunks of material with the planet's ring system.

Still, it was an emotional time for everyone involved, as many have been working with this spacecraft for decades.

Cassini actually burned up like a meteor 83 minutes earlier as it dove through Saturn's atmosphere, becoming one with the giant gas planet it set out in 1997 to explore. Even more congregated at nearby California Institute of Technology, which runs the lab for NASA. This includes the revelation of oceans on Titan and Enceladus.

The two probes showed Titan has a startlingly Earth-like landscape, with rivers, lakes and seas filled with liquid methane and ethane.

"It's a bittersweet, but fond, farewell to a mission that leaves behind an incredible wealth of discoveries that have changed our view of Saturn and our solar system, and will continue to shape future missions and research", said Michael Watkins, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, which manages the Cassini mission for the agency. "The mission's end is hitting him hard: "Everyone, including me, were so young!", said Dr. Gombosi".

Cassini's date with death had been planned for months.

Cassini to End 20-Year Mission With Fiery Crash
These are the last close-up photos of Saturn we may see in decades

Head of spacecraft operations Julie Webster called "loss of signal", followed by Project Manager Earl Maize announcing "end of mission" as the spacecraft began to break up in Saturn's atmosphere.

Along the way, Cassini revealed much about this best-known of the ringed planets (Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune each have rings as well). And through Cassini, whatever fog of epistemic darkness that had settled on Saturn and its moons was pushed back.

The spacecraft's fateful dive was the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings. It also captured some final images of Titan and close-ups of Saturn's rings.

The Cassini mission to Saturn may be over, but scientists and the rest of humanity will be poring over images from the spacecraft for years to come. The pattern was first recorded by the Voyager spacecraft in 1980, although it was not discovered in the data until eight years later.

Even during its final descent, Cassini is sending new data about Saturn's atmosphere back to Earth. Project officials invited ground telescopes to look out for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but doubted it would be spotted from a billion miles away. That's because of the distance between Saturn and Earth, which spans almost a billion miles. NASA predicted it would receive the final signal at 7:55AM ET, and wound up getting it about half a minute later than expected.

Cassini is dead; long live Cassini.

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