Cassini takes a final plunge into Saturn, ending its 20-year mission

Sep 16, 2017, 01:07
Cassini takes a final plunge into Saturn, ending its 20-year mission

Scientists at USA space agency NASA expect Cassini's final transmission to reach Earth about 1155 GMT on Friday (9:55 Saturday AEST), 83 minutes after the density of the giant gas planet's atmosphere is likely to cause the spacecraft to tumble, severing its radio signal. During the second mission, Cassini conducted dozens of flybys of the ringed planet's icy moons.

Cassini project manager Earl Maize hugs Julie Webster, spacecraft operations team manager, at Mission Control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory just after the mission's end.

"Congratulations to you all", Maize announced to applause. During the webcast, one team member in JPL's mission control room could be heard saying "Cassini is still there!"

This is the last image taken by the cameras aboard NASA's awe-inspiring Cassini. But rather than careen into a canyon, the plucky probe took a final plunge into the object of its obsession. It still had enough left to power its boosters for another few years but NASA mission engineers didn't want to take the risk of an uncontrolled landing on Titan or Enceladus.

An image taken just days ago clearly shows the large gap in the middle of the ring known as the Cassini Division. It was discovered by Giovanni Cassini the 17th Century astronomer for whom the probe is named
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Including Titan, Cassini explored a total of 19 Saturnian moons in detail.

After launching in 1997, the spacecraft has orbited Saturn since 2004, which has sent back science and engineering information collected during its journey.

Before its destruction, the bus-sized Cassini spacecraft fought Saturn's buffeting atmosphere to send back scientific data for even longer than NASA thought it would.

The twin Voyagers swung by Saturn in the 1970s and '80s, giving scientists a rough outline of the planet and its moons. They also found a global ocean on the moon Enceladus, with ice plumes spouting from its surface. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI) This Sept. 13 image of Saturn's outer A ring, captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, shows the small moon Daphnis and the waves it raises in the edges of the Keeler Gap. She called Cassini's revelations about this moon "one of the most astonishing discoveries for planetary science ... that has really changed our thinking about where to look for life".

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This is the final look that Cassini had of Enceladus. "Scientists have worked on these their whole life". NASA hopes that the spacecraft will now help them in getting an inside out view of Saturn in the last stage.

The end of the mission is "not unexpected", McEwen says.

The spacecraft is running out of fuel.

"We don't have a gas gauge". The mission team made a decision to sacrifice the spacecraft when it ran out of fuel, rather than risk a collision with one of those potentially habitable moons and contaminating it with any still-lingering earthly microbes.

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"In the words of our former governor here, 'We will be back, '" Zurbuchen said in Pasadena.

But Cassini's revelations at Titan and Enceladus inspired NASA past year to add the moons to its call-out for proposals for the New Frontiers program - a group of medium-size missions that includes the New Horizons flyby of Pluto and the Juno orbiter around Jupiter. We know each other's families, children, and grandchildren. Mission scientists will examine the spacecraft's final observations in the coming weeks for new insights about Saturn, including hints about the planet's formation and evolution, and processes occurring in its atmosphere.

Cassini reported its final data early Friday morning.

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