Cassini mission to Saturn

Muriel Hammond
September 15, 2017

After 13 years orbiting the giant ringed planet and exploring its moons, the unmanned, nuclear-powered probe will be incinerated at 7:55 am EDT (4:55 am PDT) on September 15 in a planned maneuver that will see it plunge into Saturn's upper atmosphere.

Over the course of its 294 trips around the planet, the probe took more than 450,000 images and sent back 635 gigabytes of science data, in part while achieving more than 160 targeted flybys of Saturn's moons. "It will radiate across the solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone", Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Cal., said in a news release. Cassini also discovered the presence of organics on Saturn's icy moon Enceladus, leading to speculation that microbes or some other simple life could potentially be living there.

Hunter Waite leads the probe's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS).

The Cassini spacecraft will go out in a blaze of glory on Friday morning after two decades of exploration. Researchers think they may have gotten that way by being ground up, but are not sure what process might have made that happen, project scientist Linda Spilker said in an interview with CNBC.

With its solid-state data recorder empty, Cassini will shift into what Maize called "bent-pipe" mode - all of the data flowing into the orbiter will be relayed to Earth nearly immediately.

"It will be completely vaporized", Maize said.

"Final approach: the spacecraft is on course to dive into Saturn's atmosphere September 15", Cassini's team said in its twitter on Wednesday. "It would be interesting to do a survey on Cassini's impact on the arts", said Lakdawalla. "It won't go very deep, because it is not a probe created to go deep, but still deeper than anything else".

The spacecraft's fateful dive on Friday will be the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale - 22 weekly dives, begun in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings.

"The thrusters will be fighting extremely hard to keep the antenna pointed at Earth", he said. "It's going to do that for as long as it will possibly can".

Once it was decided that Cassini has to suffer a fiery death, scientists began planning what data the spacecraft could gather as it enters Saturn's atmosphere.

"Goodbye, Cassini! Your mission's fini".

"At the time of its design, we had no idea that ocean worlds existed in the outer solar system", said Morgan Cable, Cassini's Assistant Project Science Systems Engineer of the Cassini.

But contact will quickly be lost once the spacecraft enters Saturn's atmosphere at a high speed. But that doesn't mean nothing can go wrong. We set out to do something at Saturn, we did it, we did it extremely well, and we delivered more and more.

Those who want a raw feed of cameras from mission control can tune into NASA JPL's raw feed on YouTube, on Ustream, or on any of the other locations found here.

A larger spacecraft with better instruments was then sent on the same journey: Voyager.

At the same time, the spacecraft will reconfigure its systems to allow real-time data transmission back to Earth. "You're racing against the clock at that point", he said.

Scientists plan to collect data from the spacecraft's instruments until the very end of the mission.

On its final approach, Cassini will be traveling at 70,000 miles per hour.

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