After a long adventure spanning two decades and nearly five billion miles, the Cassini spacecraft crashed into Saturn in a blaze of glory. Farewell and thank you for all you’ve given us.
The crash was intentional and planned carefully by National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA). Still, those who’ve followed the spacecraft’s journey mourn its demise. As beautifully written in last week’s farewell here at the Inquisitr, “Cold, alone, and very far from home, the Cassini orbiter will take a long last look at the pale blue dot whence it sprang and finish its 294th and final orbit of Saturn by nosing over and dropping through the gas giant’s atmosphere in one final, fatal contribution to mankind’s understanding of the planetary system in which we live.”
The Cassini-Huygens exploration of distant Saturn was a joint project with NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian Space Agency (ISA). According to NASA, the Cassini orbiter and attached Huygens probe were launched from Cape Canaveral with a major boost from a Titan IVB/Centaur on Oct. 15, 1997. It took seven years just to reach Saturn.
The Washington Post reported Cassini was the first spacecraft to ever visit Saturn and its moons. Managed and run by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., the mission was a great success with few glitches, a wealth of fascinating images, and some exciting discoveries. For starters, two of Saturn’s moons — Titan and Enceladus — have oceans and the ingredients for life.
Thanks to Cassini, we now know Saturn’s giant moon Titan boasts a dense atmosphere and methane seas that may prove hospitable to life.
The Huygens probe offered a more close-up view.
The spacecraft’s photos also suggest an ocean lurks beneath the icy moon Enceladus’ frozen surface.
Cassini even captured footage of a giant, six-month-long hurricane that makes Hurricane Irma look like a spring breeze.
Linda Spilker, a project scientist who has worked on the Cassini mission since 1988, said, “There’s this tremendous legacy. Cassini has certainly rewritten the textbooks.”
Sadly, the Washington Post reported, “Cassini is a victim of its own success.” Because it discovered that both Titan and Enceladus may be able to support life, NASA’s scientists were forced to plot its demise. In 2009, they realized Cassini was running out of gas. Since they didn’t want it crashing into Titan or Enceladus and contaminating possible life on these moons, they came up with a plan. By programming Cassini to pass Titan one last time, while using the moon’s gravity to “sling the craft” into a final 22 close-up orbits around Saturn, they could collect valuable data while crashing it into the ringed planet’s atmosphere.
As Vox reported, Cassini made those 22 orbits around Saturn in the treacherous area between the planet and its rings. While in this never-before-explored space, the spacecraft took measurements to determine the mass and age of the rings. Cassini then turned towards earth for a stronger radio signal, reprogrammed itself to gather information about Saturn’s atmosphere, then hurled itself past the point of no return. Brett Pugh, a thermal engineer at NASA/JPL described how this likely went down.
“The outer surface materials might start to char at first; then you’d see some breaking apart; then when you get down to the metal, once it gets hot enough, it will glow. There’s no oxygen on Saturn, so there’s no fire. But “the propellant tanks will explode eventually as the temperatures get high enough.”
Saturn is so large and its atmosphere so thick, scientists expect Cassini to vanish without a trace. As NASA’s website explains, “intense heat and pressure will cause all of its materials to melt and completely dissociate, eventually becoming completely diluted in the planet’s interior.”
Many of NASA/JPL’s scientists have been working together on the Cassini-Huygens project since the 1980s. For them, Cassini’s grand finale is not just the end of a project, it’s the end of an era. As Linda Spilker, told reporters, “Our families have gotten to know each other, in some cases our children have grown up together, and now in the final two weeks we’re sharing the end of this incredible mission.”
Incredible images from Cassini’s final days.
Here are some of the unforgettable images from Cassini’s final days. Many of these were taken on Sept. 13 and are among the last ones the spacecraft sent to planet earth.
1. A NASA/JPL artist’s rendering of the spacecraft as it crashed into Saturn.
2. A final glimpse of Saturn’s frozen moon, Enceladus.
3. The spacecraft visits Saturn’s giant moon Titan for the last time.
4. Cassini took some final images of the planet Saturn’s rings.
5. A last look at Saturn as Cassini approaches.
6. The tiny moon Daphnis is within the outer edge of Saturn’s A ring. You can barely see it, but its gravity causes waves in the ring’s material.
7. Here’s the exact spot where Cassini crashed into Saturn.
8. This artist’s rendering shows Cassini’s final visit to Titan and last 22 orbits around Saturn before its grand finale.
[Featured Image by NASA/JPL | Artist concept | Public Domain]