NASA's Cassini Spacecraft Ends Historic Mission Plunging Into Saturn

NASA's Cassini Spacecraft Ends Historic Mission Plunging Into Saturn

Fortunately, it's easy to extricate Cassini from this calculating way of thinking because it was the effort of a team of people working decades to send it - a van-sized assemblage of metal and glass - on a 1.5-billion-km journey across space, to observe a giant planet, its resplendent rings and its regalia of over three score 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.

"The spacecraft is gone", Maize said at a post-mission news conference. "This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're all an incredible team". But it took that long for the news to arrive at Earth a billion miles away. But rather than careen into a canyon, the plucky probe took a final plunge into the object of its obsession.

Applause broke out at CU's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, after the signal went dark and the mission was declared ended at 5:55 a.m. MDT, right on schedule, almost 20 years after launching. The European Huygens landed on big moon Titan in 2005.

"One of the most attractive planets we can imagine", Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen said of Saturn during a press briefing.

NASA's Cassini mission has transmitted the final images taken by its imaging cameras just before burning up in the Saturnian atmosphere in a final, science rich dive.

The twin Voyagers swung by Saturn in the 1970s and '80s, giving scientists a rough outline of the planet and its moons.

"Cassini showed us the beauty of Saturn". Leaving it to drift around Saturn, like two old friends chilling together unto eternity, was no longer an option because Cassini could contaminate the life on Enceladus if it accidentally crashed there.

Cassini not only has greatly expanded humans' understanding of Saturn, but also its 62 moons, and the composition and features of the rings encircling the second-largest planet in the solar system. 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". This includes the revelation of oceans on Titan and Enceladus. "Scientists have worked on these their whole life".

Farewell Cassini
This monochrome view is the last image taken by the imaging cameras on NASA's Cassini spacecraft NASA

Cassini was estimated to last about a minute and a half in Saturn's atmosphere before high temperatures ripped apart and melted its components.

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

Flight controllers wearing matching purple shirts gave Cassini a standing ovation, embraced and shook hands.

"We don't have a gas gauge".

In the predawn dimness, hundreds of bleary-eyed scientists gathered to watch the live stream from mission control. 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.

Looking back, Professor Zarnecki said: "It's been an incredible 20 years".

During more than 13 years circling Saturn, the Cassini orbiter explored Saturn's moon Enceladus and its ice crust. We know each other's families, children, and grandchildren.

Cassini is set to make groundbreaking scientific observations of Saturn, using eight of its twelve science instruments.


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