Nasa waves emotional goodbye to Cassini after death plunge into Saturn

Saul Bowman
September 16, 2017

"The signal from the spacecraft is gone, and within the next 45 seconds, so will be the spacecraft", Cassini project manager Earl Maize announced from the mission control center at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. "This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're all an incredible team". That may help ensure the team got enough data to figure out Saturn's rotation period, science team member Michele Dougherty of Imperial College London said at a post-mission news conference September 15. A few minutes later, Cassini vaporized bellowing a "scream" that took 83 minutes to reach Earth. But rather than careen into a canyon, the plucky probe took a final plunge into the object of its obsession.

The spacecraft's fateful dive is the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings.

During many flybys, Cassini monitored the dynamic Titan using its camera suite and an instrument called VIMS, a Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, to clarify the makeup of Saturn, its rings, and moons.

Project scientist, Linda Spilker acclaimed that Cassini has been running "a marathon of scientific discovery" for past 13 years at Saturn. It arrived at its target planet in 2004.

NASA said the enormous amount of data the Cassini spacecraft collected on its mission to Saturn - including its magnetosphere, rings and moons - will continue to yield new discoveries for decades to come.

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

"This is a bittersweet moment for all of us", said JPL Director Mike Watkins, "but I think it is more sweet than bitter because Cassini has been such an incredible mission".

Enceladus is particularly interesting to NASA because - like Europa, the smallest of the four Galilean moons orbiting Jupiter - it conceals a global ocean of salty liquid water beneath its icy surface. It was the only spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn, and showed the world's rings and moons in vivid detail, unveiling oceans on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbor life. Though very different, the two moons have the potential to have developed life. "Titan, with its methane lakes and Enceladus, with its geysers of salty water". "Scientists have worked on these their whole life". This was among the final images Cassini took in the Saturnian system before its fiery demise.

Why end the mission?

A computer screen in mission control displays mission elapsed time for Cassini minutes after the end of mission.

"We don't have a gas gauge".

In its 20-year mission, Cassini certainly meets the bill. The mission team chose 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.

"It's been a great, fantastic, fantastic mission", Esposito said, "and we're looking forward to the last bits of information, to finish up the mission and to carry on our investigations here at the University of Colorado". (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute) As it glanced around the Saturn system one final time, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured this view of the planet's giant moon Titan. We know each other's families, children, and grandchildren.

During its time at Saturn, the probe has re-shaped our understanding of the ringed planet and its place in the solar system, sending back incredible photos and scientific data about the world's moons, rings, and environment.

The Cassini craft disintegrated in the skies above Saturn early Friday.

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