Cassini Mission to Saturn Ends Today After 20 Years of Space Exploration

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft burns up today as the end of the craft’s usefulness is marked by a plunge to its death in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Cassini reached Saturn in 2004 after a seven-year voyage.

It was the first orbit and major exploration of the ringed planet up close. This captivated the world and the millions who look up toward the sky and dream about the far reaches of outer space.

In more ways than one, Cassini’s explorations proves the emptiness of outer space.

The photographs of the ringed planet sent back to earth during the past decade have captivated scientists and astronomers stunned by the images.

Saturn has a surface area of 16.49 billion miles and an equatorial circumference of 227,348 miles.

Cassini View of Saturn
With this view, Cassini captured one of its last looks at Saturn and its main rings from a distance. The Saturn system has been Cassini’s home for 13 years, but that journey is nearing its end. (NASA)

It is the sixth planet from the Sun, the second largest planet in our Solar System, after Jupiter.

Saturn is 95 times the size of the earth, a gas giant.

It is named after the Roman god of agriculture.

Saturn view from Cassini
Although only a sliver of Saturn’s sunlit face is visible in this view, the mighty gas giant planet still dominates the view.

Saturn has a prominent ring system that consists of nine continuous main rings and three discontinuous arcs and that is composed mostly of ice particles with a smaller amount of rocky debris and dust. 62 moons are known to orbit Saturn, of which fifty-three are officially named. This does not include the hundreds of moonlets comprising the rings. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, and the second largest in the Solar System, is larger than the planet Mercury, although less massive, and is the only moon in the Solar System to have a substantial atmosphere.

Thirteen years after reaching Saturn, Cassini is taking its final course to extinction with a kamikaze-like plunge into Saturn’s ringed atmosphere.

Cassini is out of propellant

Dutifully executing a final set of commands from Earth, Cassini was programmed to snap a final few pictures of Saturn, its vast ring system, Titan and the small moon Enceladus Thursday in what mission managers are calling “the last picture show,” before turning its large dish antenna toward Earth to transmit the images and other data back to waiting scientists.

Dione and Tethys
This view looks toward the anti-Saturn side of Dione. North on Dione is to the right. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on April 4, 2015. The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.5 million miles (2.4 million kilometers) from Dione. Image scale is 9 miles (14 kilometers) per pixel. (NASA)

Titan and Enceladus, which harbors a saltwater ocean beneath an icy crust, host potentially habitable environments and rather than risk an eventual collision with an out-of-gas Cassini — and earthly contamination — NASA managers opted to crash the spacecraft into Saturn to eliminate any possible threat.

“These final images are sort of like taking a last look around your house or apartment just before you move out,” said Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “You look at your old rooms, and memories across the years come flooding back. In the same way, Cassini is taking a last look around the Saturn system… and with those pictures come heart-warming memories.”

Cassini cannot send images back during its final descent, but eight of its scientific instruments will be operating and beaming back data in real-time as the spacecraft, its antenna locked on Earth, slams into Saturn’s discernible atmosphere at 6:31 a.m. EDT (GMT-4) Friday.

Traveling at a velocity of 70,000 mph, Cassini’s demise will be quick. Even so, scientists expect a wealth of data during the probe’s final moments.

“The highest science priority is to sample the atmosphere,” Spilker said. “We stand to gain fundamental insights into Saturn’s formation and evolution as well as processes that occur in the atmosphere.”

Cassini Team
With Cassini’s exploration of Saturn coming to a dashing end in a few months, the mission team scheduled an “All Cassini Plus Alumni” group photo on Wednesday, June 21, 2017 to commemorate the event — June 21, 2016. (Bob Paz)

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