Cassini’s ‘Grand Finale’ Marks The End Of An Era, But Not The End Of NASA’s Plans For Saturn

Cassini’s “grand finale” marked a bittersweet moment for the scientists behind the mission as NASA’s spacecraft took a bow and crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere. Thus marked the proverbial end of an era for NASA as it concluded a mission that had, for the past 13 years, brought back so much information on the ringed planet and its moons. But it won’t be the end for the space agency as far as exploring Saturn is concerned.

According to a report from the Los Angeles Times, NASA is in the process of going through options for the next New Frontiers mission. This is a program covering “medium-sized” missions, including Juno to Jupiter, New Horizons to Pluto, and OSIRIS-REx to the asteroid Bennu. With New Frontiers now evaluating candidates for new missions as it does every five years or so, these potential missions include a probe to Saturn as well as a trip to one of the planet’s watery moons, Titan or Enceladus.

The chances of Cassini’s grand finale making way for new missions to Saturn, Titan, or Enceladus represent only three out of 12 possibilities for New Frontiers’ next big endeavor. Also included among the proposals are missions to the Trojan asteroids that share a path around the sun with Jupiter, a space probe to Venus, and separate missions to gather surface samples from a comet or the moon’s south pole.

In any event, NASA appears to have Saturn in its future plans in one way or another. Prior to the culmination of Cassini’s grand finale, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) director Michael Watkins offered a succinct statement confirming the space agency’s intent of further exploring Saturn in the future.

“The discoveries are so compelling that we have to go back.”

Furthermore, NASA Planetary Science Division director Jim Green was cited by the Los Angeles Times as being instrumental in the inclusion of Enceladus and Titan among the prospective destinations for the next New Frontiers mission.

“Cassini was so successful in demonstrating some really spectacular and surprising moons of Saturn that … we decided to add them as targets,” said Green in an interview.

Even then, Green made sure to set people’s expectations following the Cassini grand finale, stressing that the potential Saturn-related mission candidates have some serious competition as meeting the objectives of the other options could reveal some game-changing findings. For example, exploring the Trojan asteroids around Jupiter could be a way for NASA to learn more about how our solar system’s largest planet originated.

“We have so many things to do in the solar system — and although Saturn is on everyone’s mind at the moment, each and every one of these [mission candidates] are going to provide us absolutely spectacular sets of data. But we’ll only be able to do one next. So one out of 12 proposals will be the one we’ll fly … the best team will win.”

It might take some time before NASA decides on whether to fly to Saturn or its moons for the next New Frontiers mission. The Los Angeles Times wrote that some of the proposed missions will move on to another stage called “Phase A” sometime in November and will then be evaluated for about a year. NASA will then choose one of the potential missions in 2019 and will have up to the end of 2025 to launch the mission.

With all that time remaining for NASA to choose a mission candidate, one thing to remember following Cassini’s grand finale is how the spacecraft’s descent into Saturn represents an “end, not a beginning.” In a statement quoted by Fast Company, JPL director Watkins said that even the last few seconds of the Cassini mission could represent “a number of Ph.Ds for students to come,” as those precious few seconds with the spacecraft crashing down represented NASA’s “first taste of the Saturn atmosphere.”

“Even in the last few seconds, Cassini managed its rewriting for the textbooks and its legend,” Watkins added.

[Featured Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI via Getty Images]