Cassini Flies Toward a Fiery Death on Saturn

Sep 11, 2017

By Dennis Overbye

The Cassini spacecraft that has orbited Saturn for the last 13 years would weigh 4,685 pounds on Earth and, at 22 feet high, is somewhat longer and wider than a small moving van tipped on its rear. Bristling with cameras, antennas and other sensors, it is one of the most complex and sophisticated spy robots ever set loose in interplanetary space.

On Friday morning, the whole world will hear it die.

At the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, the scientists of the Cassini mission will figuratively ride their creation down into oblivion in the clouds of Saturn. They will be collecting data on the makeup of the planet’s butterscotch clouds until the last bitter moment, when the spacecraft succumbs to the heat and pressure of atmospheric entry and becomes a meteor.

So will end a decades-long journey of discovery and wonder.

The Cassini-Huygens mission, as it is officially known, was hatched in the 1980s partly to strengthen ties between NASA and the European Space Agency and partly because, well, where else in the solar system would you want to go? With mysterious, mesmerizing rings and a panoply of strange moons (62 and counting), Saturn was the last outpost of the known planets before the discoveries of Uranus, Neptune and Pluto.

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One comment on “Cassini Flies Toward a Fiery Death on Saturn”

  • As Cassini’s cameras are turned off and its other instruments measure the atmosphere which will destroy it, it will add this data to the wealth of previous data which will provide insights for researchers for years to come!

    Meanwhile, some of its management team are moving over to take on new missions with other probes!
    After Cassini: Pondering the Saturn Mission’s Legacy

    Jupiter’s moon Europa has been a prime target for future exploration since NASA’s Galileo mission, in the late 1990s, found strong evidence for a salty global ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust. But the more recent revelation that a much smaller moon like Enceladus could also have not only liquid water, but also chemical energy that could potentially power biology, was staggering.

    Many lessons learned during Cassini’s mission are being applied to planning NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, planned for launch in the 2020s. Europa Clipper will fly by the icy ocean moon dozens of times to investigate its potential habitability, using an orbital tour design derived from the way Cassini has explored Saturn. The Europa Clipper mission will orbit the giant planet — Jupiter in this case — using gravitational assists from its large moons to maneuver the spacecraft into repeated close encounters with Europa. This is similar to the way Cassini’s tour designers used the gravity of Saturn’s moon Titan to continually shape their spacecraft’s course.

    In addition, many engineers and scientists from Cassini are serving on Europa Clipper and helping to develop its science investigations. For example, several members of the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer and Cosmic Dust Analyzer teams are developing extremely sensitive, next-generation versions of their instruments for flight on Europa Clipper. What Cassini has learned about flying through the plume of material spraying from Enceladus will help inform planning for Europa Clipper, should plume activity be confirmed on Europa.

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