Cassini mission to Saturn

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Cassini, the most distant planetary orbiter ever launched, is closing in on its doom. Saturn is an enormous ball of gas with no discernible surface, and when Cassini plunges in the probe will become a fireball. But after Cassini revealed so many ocean worlds close at hand, that assumption has to be revised. Researchers think they may have gotten that way by being ground up, but are not sure what process might have made that happen, project scientist Linda Spilker said in an interview with CNBC. In particular, the spacecraft's ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which will be directly sampling the atmosphere's composition, will potentially offer insights into the giant planet's formation and evolution, according to NASA. There are some huge gaps in the rings where the atmosphere is silent and less dusty.

If you could magically teleport across the solar system, Saturn would be a great place to swing by on Friday morning.

The Cassini spacecraft has expended nearly all of its propulsion fuel and is being deliberately plunged to its demise in the atmosphere of Saturn. Eastern Time for the spacecraft, but given the time it takes for the signal to reach Earth, we will receive those last bits of data just before 8 a.m. - long after Cassini is "gone".

"The Titan flyby was just close enough and just the right orientation to seal Cassini's fate", Cassini program manager Earl Maize, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said during a news conference Wednesday (Sept. 13).

Saturn is something of a solar system unto itself (minus the requisite sun).

And of course, we wouldn't know much of anything about Enceladus and Titan without Cassini's dogged work exploring Saturn and its many moons.

"The scientific legacy of the mission will extend long beyond its fiery end in the clouds of Saturn".

Then, duty dispatched, it accelerated towards Saturn's surface. So, rather than risk contaminating those moons with life from Earth, Cassini and any microbes it harbors will burn up on entry into Saturn's atmosphere.

Saturn with one of its moons Tethys taken by the Cassini spacecraft
Saturn with one of its moons Tethys taken by the Cassini spacecraft

Cassini also dispatched the Huygens lander to Titan, Saturn's largest moon, where it discovered a vast underground ocean, and liquid methane on its surface that undergoes a cycle similar to that of water on Earth.

Cassini's mission has produced a treasure trove of scientific data and mesmerizing images.

On the eve of its final descent, other instruments will make detailed observations of Saturn's aurora borealis, temperatures and polar storms. "We are going to learn even more over the next day or so".

Planetary Society board member Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) sings a very special goodbye to the Cassini mission at Saturn. In recent weeks, Cassini has beamed back information on Saturn's enigmatic rings that could answer fundamental questions about their make-up.

The aging spacecraft, which launched from Earth in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004, was only supposed to monitor the ringed planet for four years.

When Cassini, the craft that has spanned generations of researchers makes its final plunge, Larry and Jason will be together for the end of a journey they started on almost 30 years ago without even realizing it.

Since April, the craft has been making a series of dives between the planet and its rings in what NASA has dubbed The Grand Finale. We learned there are 3-D structures in the rings.

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