NASA's Cassini spacecraft gets operatic send-off before its fiery farewell

Sep 15, 2017, 00:26
NASA's Cassini spacecraft gets operatic send-off before its fiery farewell

Saturn's shadow on its rings as seen from the Cassini spacecraft. When is Cassini expected to make it final transmission to earth? Better that, they figured, than Cassini accidentally colliding with a moon that might harbor life and contaminating it. "The haze has cleared remarkably as the summer solstice has approached", Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker said in a news conference September 13.

The space between the rings and the planet also is home to another mystery: extremely small, nearly smoke-like, particles of dust. There are some huge gaps in the rings where the atmosphere is silent and less dusty. This final in-depth trip provided some valuable information about the chemical composition of Saturn's atmosphere. About two minutes later, Cassini will burn and disintegrate completely - any traces of it will melt due to the heat and high pressure of the giant planet's hostile atmosphere. "But Cassini will not go quietly". It send back some gorgeous snapshots along the way and, now that its extended mission is complete, it's time for the spacecraft to perform the ultimate sacrifice.

"The Grand Finale represents the culmination of a seven-year plan to use the spacecraft's remaining resources in the most scientifically productive way possible", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

This week, the spacecraft flew to within 120,000km of the Titan moon in order to nudge its trajectory enough to send it on a collision course with Saturn. The mission's end is a loss for an entire scientific community.

They have set many records and one of them is their planetary encounters that include the discovery of the first active volcanoes beyond Earth - on Jupiter's moon Io - and the most Earth-like atmosphere in the solar system - on Saturn's moon Titan. NASA has to abide by planetary protection rules, which state that if a planet has the potential to host life, then NASA must ensure that it is not contaminated. Huygens landed on Titan, one of Saturn's many moons, while Cassini continued a 13-year orbit mission around Saturn.

The Cassini mission has provided some incredibly close-up and striking images of Saturn and its moons, with a camera that was five times the resolution of the one on Voyager (plus a radar to see through Titan's atmosphere).

Other Cassini stamps were issued in the Maldives, Guinea and Togo, the latter two to mark the mission's tenth year at Saturn in 2014. And surely that will continue with its final dive, she said.

Inspired to learn more after flybys of Saturn by NASA's Voyager missions, the Cassini mission was created to be an worldwide effort that united NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency.

Evidence for subsurface oceans of water were discovered by Cassini inside both Enceladus and Titan, making them prime targets for future NASA missions.

"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. Hence, on 1997 NASA launched its robotic spacecraft, Cassini for an ambitious mission to Saturn.

Cassini also carried a small lander called Huygens, supplied by the European Space Agency, whose descent to the surface of Saturn's giant moon Titan made headlines around the world and marked the highpoint of the mission.

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