NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft And Its Final Daring Journey Into Saturn’s Rings

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was created with the bold of spirit of adventure in mind, which will soon see it descending into Saturn’s innermost ring. The Cassini spacecraft is a joint venture between NASA, the Italian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency, and the probe first began its journey in 1997.

On July 1, 2004, seven years after it was first launched, the Cassini-Huygens reached its final destination of Saturn where it has remained orbiting the planet to this day. While the Huygens probe detached from the Cassini in 2005 and landed on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, both probes have continued to send back images along their journey

For the past 12 years NASA’s Cassini has been exploring Saturn and searching for signs of life on Saturn’s moons. Jubilation was felt by many as the Cassini discovered that on the moon Enceladus, there are conditions which are just right for life in its oceans, as The Telegraph reported. The spacecraft also enabled scientists to learn that Titan features many things that could conceivably make life possible there, like seas, rain, and wind.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft moving between Saturn and its rings.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft moving between Saturn and its rings. [Image by NASA/AP Images]

Cassini is now set for the end of its many missions as its propellant tanks, which are in place to adjust the course of the spacecraft, are almost completely empty right now. NASA’s Cassini will draw its last breath as it eventually breaks up and melts completely and becomes part of Saturn. Dr Earl Maize, who is Cassini’s program manager, has said that the mission will be ending soon, as scientists do not wish to risk having the spacecraft accidentally crashing into Saturn’s moons and harming any possible life that could be lingering there.

“If Cassini runs out of fuel it would be uncontrolled and the possibility that it could crash-land on the moons of Titan and/or Enceladus are unacceptably high. We could put it into a very long orbit far from Saturn but the science return from that would be nowhere near as good as what we’re about to do.”

NASA’s Cassini will now be shifting in and out of Saturn’s rings 22 times over many months before it eventually hits Saturn’s atmosphere and burns up completely. By doing this, there will be no risk of it harming one of Saturn’s moons when its propellant tanks are finally empty. The Telegraph reports that the spacecraft will spend the next 142 days moving in and out of Saturn’s rings at speeds eventually reaching 76,806 miles per hour before Cassini’s mission finally concludes on September 15.

The Cassini mission has been prolonged and extended three separate times so far, but with worries about its propellant tanks quickly becoming empty, NASA fears the probe crashing and possibly contaminating a moon or planet, which may host life. So, despite the sadness surrounding the NASA Cassini spacecraft’s eventual ending, a NASA spokesperson has described the remarkable knowledge that has been gleaned thanks to this probe.

“While it’s always sad when a mission comes to an end, Cassini’s finale plunge is a truly spectacular end for one of the most scientifically rich voyages yet undertaken in our solar system. From its launch in 1997 to the unique grand finale science of 2017, the Cassini-Huygens mission has racked up a remarkable list of achievements.”

NASA's Cassini spacecraft reveals two of Saturn's moons, Titan and Epimetheus.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft reveals two of Saturn's moons, Titan and Epimetheus. [Image by NASA/AP Images]

Even though NASA has lost contact with Cassini at this time, as it is currently moving through Saturn’s rings, they expect to be back in touch with it by April 27, as The Independent reports. Once contact is made again, NASA will be able to ascertain the health of the probe to make sure that it will continue to run until September 15. They will also be able to once again start accessing data from Cassini, and this data, which also includes images, will be looked at in the coming years.

With NASA’s Cassini currently moving in and out of Saturn’s rings, there will be a wealth of information still available to learn.

[Featured Image by Handout/Getty Images]