Cassini spacecraft ends 20-year-old voyage in style, crashes into Saturn

  • Cassini spacecraft ends 20-year-old voyage in style, crashes into Saturn

Cassini spacecraft ends 20-year-old voyage in style, crashes into Saturn

Until the very end, Cassini displayed just how robust and enduring this spacecraft has been throughout its entire 20 years in space and its 13-year mission at Saturn.

The probe's death dive was actually carried out at roughly 6:31 a.m. EDT, but the delay and distance between Saturn and Earth caused NASA to continue receiving the probe's final radio signals for another 83 minutes after. "We can't go there ourselves, so we build a spacecraft and load it up with instruments, and then we put on our hopes and desires and we send them there", said science planner Jo Pitesky. Due to the travel time for radio signals from Saturn, which changes as both Earth and the ringed planet travel around the Sun, events now take place there 83 minutes before they are observed on Earth.

As Cassini flew by Mimas, the probe took pictures, and those photos enable scientists back on Earth to see how the moon spins on its axis - how it wobbles a bit.

Get top headlines in your inbox every afternoon.Sign up for the free PM Report newsletter. With the probe running out of gas, NASA chose to plunge it closer to the surface of the planet than it's ever been.

After a 20-year flight, Cassini was running out of fuel, so NASA chose to crash Cassini before letting it remain aloft, where it could have been knocked into Titan, the moon with methane lakes, or Enceladus, the moon with jets of water in its southern pole.

Cassini's plunge brings to a close a series of 22 weekly "Grand Finale" dives between Saturn and its rings, a feat never before attempted by any spacecraft. Its delicate thrusters no match for the thickening atmosphere, the spacecraft tumbled out of control during its rapid plunge and burned up like a meteor over Saturn's skies. During the webcast, one team member in JPL's mission control room could be heard saying "Cassini is still there!" That would make them relatively young compared with Saturn; perhaps a moon or comet came too close to Saturn and broke apart, forming the rings 100 million years ago.

Enceladus
The Saturn moon Enceladus has a frozen surface covering a hidden global ocean of salt water and possibly some form of life

Flight controllers wearing matching purple shirts stood and embraced and shook hands.

"Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years", said project scientist Linda Spilker.

"To me, it's the fact that there's an ocean underneath a crust of ice, and we had no idea that it was there before we had Cassini", Possel said. NASA now believes the circled area in the image below is where the spacecraft finally became part of the planet it studied for so long. Enceladus plows along the orbit of the E Ring, Saturn's second-from-outermost ring, which reaches extremely far out into space, brushing up against the orbit of Titan. Twenty-two times, Cassini entered the gap and came out again. As of that moment, its last and only job was to stream everything it could sense directly back to Earth in real time. So what's next? There's plenty to look forward to, including the ARRM Asteroid Redirect mission, Europa Clipper to Jupiter's icy, potentially life-supporting Europa moon and the Mars 2020 Rover mission, to name just a few.

Cassini was launched on October 15, 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex 40.

In 2005, the Cassini orbiter released a lander called Huygens on Titan, marking the first and only such landing in the outer solar system, on a celestial body beyond the asteroid belt.

In all, Cassini collected more than 453,000 images and travelled 4.9 billion miles.