Cassini to End 20-Year Mission With Fiery Crash

by Dominic Parks September 15, 2017, 0:34
Cassini to End 20-Year Mission With Fiery Crash

After the thrusters reach maximum, Cassini will no longer be able to control its attitude and will begin to tumble.

Looking to the future, many of Cassini's scientists are eager to return with new, more capable spacecraft. 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. The spectrometer will attempt to investigate what material is from the rings and what material is part of the atmosphere. This final in-depth trip provided some valuable information about the chemical composition of Saturn's atmosphere.

On Thursday afternoon, NASA's $3.3 billion Cassini spacecraft will capture one final image: A close-up of its eventual killer, the gas giant Saturn. "Between Voyager and Cassini was 30 years", Green said.

Cassini's team is reconfiguring the spacecraft to send back scientific data in "near real time".

"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager.

"There's a gentleman on the mission named Dave Doody and he actually built [a paper model] and it's online, so you can go print it out for free and build your own Cassini". Those cameras, over the years of photographing Saturn, its rings and moons, created some of the most visually lovely images of the solar system. There are fascinating images of geysers shooting from Enceladus's south pole, attractive images of Saturn's rings (including one with Saturn's shadow falling on them), and a zoomed-in view of Epimetheus (another of Saturn's moons).

NASA chose to end the mission by safely disposing of the spacecraft, burning it up in Saturn's atmosphere rather than allowing it to run out of fuel and committing its fate to an aimless tumble and potential crash onto one of Saturn's moons.

As the 6.7-metre probe begins its fall into Saturn's cloud tops it will continue to take images of the ringed planet and its moons which will be radioed to Nasa's Deep Space Network antenna complex in Canberra before being posted on the mission website.

An illustration of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through the water plumes of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus.       NASA  JPL-Caltech
An illustration of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through the water plumes of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. NASA JPL-Caltech

In the lead-up to the end of its mission Cassini has made a series of daring low orbit dives, each passing between the planet and its rings, to gather images and data that could not have been obtained earlier without putting the craft in jeopardy.

On the eve of its final descent, other instruments will make detailed observations of Saturn's aurora borealis, temperatures and polar storms. Now, we reflect on Cassini's many triumphs, and stand vigil to witness the spacecraft's last moments, pushing the boundaries of what engineering can do one final time. Four years became thirteen, as Cassini continuously exceeded expectations and NASA kept discovering new tasks for the probe.

"Cassini-Huygens is an extraordinary mission of discovery that has revolutionized our understanding of the outer solar system", said Alexander Hayes, assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University.

Even among NASA missions, Cassini really is an overachiever.

But as with all things involving spaceflight, the reason for Cassini's collision course with Saturn is nothing if not practical.

Cassini was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn seven years later.

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.

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