Saturn spacecraft begins science swan-song

Apr 13, 2017

By Alexandra Witze

After 13 years exploring Saturn and its moons, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has just 5 months left to live. But it will go out with a scientific bang.

On 22 April, Cassini will slingshot past Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, for the last time. Four days later, the probe will hurtle into the unexplored region between the giant planet and its rings. Cassini will thread that 2,400-kilometre-wide gap 22 times before its kamikaze dive into Saturn’s atmosphere on 15 September.

This unprecedented journey promises to yield fresh discoveries for the venerable spacecraft. “It will be like a whole new mission,” says Linda Spilker, Cassini’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “There are fundamental new scientific measurements to make.”

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4 comments on “Saturn spacecraft begins science swan-song

  • The final orbits before the probe runs out of fuel, are to go on high risk trajectories, with risks of colliding with ring particles, and finally to reach inaccessible places to measure the atmosphere and magnetic field of Saturn!
    These are investigations which were considered too risky earlier in the mission, when the loss of the Cassini probe would have prevented the years of study which it has now completed!

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  • This phase of the mission has now started!

    Nasa waits on Cassini radio contact from Saturn
    Controllers and scientists must wait until Thursday to hear from Cassini.

    The probe was due early on Wednesday to make the first of 22 dives in between Saturn’s cloudtops and the inner edge of its spectacular rings.

    The daredevil flights are designed to gather pictures and other science data of unprecedented resolution.

    But Cassini was out of radio contact for the duration of the plunge and is not scheduled to re-establish communications for another day.

    Because the probe was moving so fast – at over 110,000km/h (70,000mph) – there was some risk attached to flying through the ring plane.

    An impact with even a tiny ice or rock particle at that velocity could do a lot of damage, and so the decision was made to point Cassini’s big antenna in the direction of travel, to act as a shield.

    But, of course, that meant it could not also then talk to Earth at the same time.

    Assuming all goes well, 21 similar dives will be made over the course of the next five months before the probe dumps itself in the atmosphere of Saturn. With so little fuel left in its tanks, Cassini cannot continue its mission for much longer.

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  • The probe has survived the risky manoeuvrer, and is sending back hi-res images!

    The Cassini spacecraft is sending data back to Earth after diving in between Saturn’s rings and cloudtops.

    The probe executed the daredevil manoeuvre on Wednesday – the first of 22 plunges planned over the next five months – while out of radio contact.

    Nasa’s 70m-wide Deep Space Network (DSN) antenna at Goldstone, California, managed to re-establish communications at 06:56 GMT (07:56 BST) on Thursday.

    The close-in dives are designed to gather ultra high-quality data.

    At their best resolution, pictures of the rings should be able to pick out features as small as 150m across.

    The Cassini imaging team has already started to post some raw, unprocessed shots on its website.

    The gap-runs carry some risk, in part because of the velocity at which Cassini is moving – at over 110,000km/h (70,000mph). At that speed, an impact with even a tiny ice or rock particle could do a lot of damage, and so the probe is commanded to point its big radio dish in the forward direction, to act as a shield.

    But that, of course, means it cannot also then talk to Earth at the same time.

    “No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before,” explained Dr Earl Maize, Nasa’s Cassini programme manager.

    “We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like. I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape.”

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