Cassini spacecraft makes final approach to Saturn

Posted September 15, 2017

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

"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.

- The first spacecraft to orbit Saturn will never be available for a museum to preserve and display.

The last hours of Cassini's mission could provide valuable data to answer some of researchers' most persistent questions: How was Saturn formed, does it have a solid core, and how long is a Saturnian day? It will then burn up like a meteor in about two minutes while still hundreds of miles above the clouds.

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As Cassini approaches Saturn, it will continue taking photos of the planet, its rings and moons, with its final images expected to be received Thursday night.

According to Staab, the commands - if needed - would be sent to the flight operations server before being transmitted to the Cassini station at mission control. Some offices have already emptied as staff found posts on NASA's Juno mission around Jupiter, the agency's Mars 2020 rover or the Europa clipper, which aims to find out whether the Jovian moon is habitable.

The spacecraft is being ditched in the atmosphere of Saturn on Friday, bringing to an end 13 years of discovery at the ringed planet. Geysers on Enceladus, oceans on Titan, the freakish polar hexagone of Saturn itself; all of these were dramatic subjects for detailed study. Stunning pictures captured Saturn's weather, a once-in-30-years storm that engulfed the globe, and the changing of its seasons. "We were able to see Saturn from many different points of view".

But this was a rarity in space adventures: a mission to a planet where the moons were the stars. This probe explored Saturn's moon Titan, which is larger than Mercury and is the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere. It was the first ever touchdown on an alien world beyond the asteroid belt. Better that, they figured, than Cassini accidentally colliding with a moon that might harbor life and contaminating it.

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Scientists took the decision to kill off Cassini because of the remote possibility of the spacecraft colliding with Titan or Enceladus, both of which could be potential habitats for simple life forms. Hydrothermal vents are thought to warm the hidden ocean's floor.

Asked where in space she would next like to send a spacecraft, Spilker said she would send another craft back to the Saturn system, replete with the considerably more sophisticated technology available today than scientists had when building Cassini and Huygens in the 1980s. Any tiny fragments that survive the inferno will sink, melt, and ultimately become diluted in the planet's interior. Cassini will intentionally end its 13 years long mission of exploring the Saturn system with a death plunge into the gas giant to ensure that its moons will remain "pristine for future explorations".

But as with all things involving spaceflight, the reason for Cassini's collision course with Saturn is nothing if not practical. "Just like nearly everything else in this mission, I expect to be completely surprised". "I have seen a lot of visual artists take images from Saturn, primarily the rings, and use those as motifs, backgrounds or design elements in their art". "Would it look like a fluffy snowball or an icy shard?" The spectrometer will attempt to investigate what material is from the rings and what material is part of the atmosphere. "Does the ocean of Enceladus have evidence of life?"

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