Cassini gets the Hollywood finale it deserved

The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini (e-Book)

After a 20 year sojourn in the final frontier, at approximately 5:00 AM PT this morning, NASA's Jet Propulsion laboratory lost contact with the Cassini spacecraft, which had plunged into Saturn's atmosphere about an hour and a half prior, ending its 13-year exploration of the Saturn system.

"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. "This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're all an incredible team". During the webcast, one team member in JPL's mission control room could be heard saying "Cassini is still there!" Cassini sent a final burst of radio signals to Earth, a final dispatch of science, from millions of miles away before going silent. But rather than careen into a canyon, the plucky probe took a final plunge into the object of its obsession.

And if you haven't been paying attention to Cassini's mission at Saturn, well, you've missed out.

Cassini-Huygens travelled to Saturn via a circuitous route, using the gravity assist technique to receive boosts in speed from the Earth, Venus, and Jupiter, and taking in an asteroid, Masursky, along the way. In the final year, Cassini completed 22 orbits through a gap between Saturn and its rings.

If and when a spacecraft is sent back to Saturn, it will arrive at a place ever so slightly touched by humans.

This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn's atmosphere on September 15, 2017.

The twin Voyagers swung by Saturn in the 1970s and '80s, giving scientists a rough outline of the planet and its moons. "So we're here today to cheer as Cassini finishes that race", she said.

One of Cassini's most important discoveries was the existence of a global watery ocean under the icy surface of Enceladus that could conceivably host life. Though very different, the two moons have the potential to have developed life. "Scientists have worked on these their whole life".

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.

The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini (e-Book)

The end of the mission is "not unexpected", McEwen says.

Within a minute, the aluminium body of the craft would have melted, with the final bits to evaporate probably being the iridium and graphite casings, which contain the probe's 72 plutonium fuel pellets.

"We don't have a gas gauge".

Astronomer Royal, Prof Martin Rees, described the mission as one of the greatest scientific and engineering achievements in space exploration.

The safe disposal of Cassini was viewed as the best way of avoiding the remote possibility of contaminating the pristine moons with Earth bugs.

During more than 13 years circling Saturn, the Cassini orbiter explored Saturn's moon Enceladus and its ice crust.

That last piece of information -which Cassini sent after sampling the molecules in the planet's atmosphere-will help scientists understand Saturn's composition and formation.

The circle shows where NASA believes Cassini burned up in Saturn's atmosphere.

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