A fiery end for Cassini, Saturn's space orbiter

15 September, 2017, 00:35 | Author: Archie Newman
  • US Spacecraft Cassini Readies for Fiery Plunge Into Saturn After 13-Year Mission

The mission helped NASA make a number of major discoveries, including a better glimpse at how planets are formed within Saturn's rings.

During its final descent, Cassini will reach mind-boggling speeds of 122,000km/h before it finally disintegrates to become part of Saturn's gaseous atmosphere. It's information that will be studied and analyzed by scientists long after the end of Cassini. The finale is significant because Cassini was the only spacecraft out of four to enter Saturn's orbit.

"We will then reconfigure Cassini for its final transmissions", Maize said.

The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer will act as the "nose" of the spacecraft, directly sampling the composition and structure of the atmosphere - something that can't be done from orbit, said Hunter Waite, team lead for the spectrometer. There are some huge gaps in the rings where the atmosphere is silent and less dusty. Saturn's "Grand Finale" dive is primarily aimed to protect Enceladus, which has a higher planetary-protection standard - Titan is just a bonus, the scientists said.

Canberra's deep space station is on a countdown to begin beaming live footage of the final hours of NASA's Cassini spacecraft before it burns up in Saturn's atmosphere.

By 3:30 a.m., Cassini will be gone.

Just before 2am today the Cassini spacecraft sent a routine message, as it has done dozens of times before during its 4.9 billion-mile mission. "It will radiate across the solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone", Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Cal., said in a news release.

Why was Cassini's mission significant?

The final plunge will take place on the day side of Saturn, near local noon, with the spacecraft entering the atmosphere around 10 degrees north latitude.

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It found a global watery ocean beneath the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus that scientists believe could harbour simple life. NASA did not want to risk Cassini crashing into any of Saturn's moons and potentially contaminating them with microbes from Earth.

To protect those Enceladus and Titan from contamination with Earth life, Cassini is going to dive down into Saturn's atmosphere before the probe runs out of fuel, which could have left it drifting on a collision course with the planet's moons.

Other Cassini stamps were issued in the Maldives, Guinea and Togo, the latter two to mark the mission's tenth year at Saturn in 2014.

NASA can't see the probe destroyed from 932 million miles away, since no other spacecraft exist at Saturn.

"Cassini-Huygens is an extraordinary mission of discovery that has revolutionized our understanding of the outer solar system", said Alexander Hayes, assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University. The Cassini mission could barely compete in dinner time conversation up against missions to mars, especially not when it was only in the planning stage.

On Oct. 15, 1997, Cassini lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and began its seven-year journey to Saturn.

Why crash Cassini into Saturn?

"Even though we'll know that, at Saturn, Cassini has already met its fate, its mission isn't truly over for us on Earth as long as we're still receiving its signal", Maize said. Images taken on October 28, 2016 with Cassini's wide angle camera using red, green and blue spectral filters were combined to create this color view.

When Cassini arrived, it witnessed a giant storm circling the planet for nine months.

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