Published: Fri, September 15, 2017
Research | By Jennifer Evans

Cassini Prepares to Crash Into Saturn as NASA Reflects on Mission's Discoveries

Cassini Prepares to Crash Into Saturn as NASA Reflects on Mission's Discoveries

There is poetry in the fact that when the Cassini spacecraft burns up in Saturn's atmosphere on Friday, ending its mission, the bus-sized spacecraft will become a part of the planet it has admired from close range for 13 years.

Nasa predicts that it will lose contact with the space craft at around 12.55pm Irish time but this could change. The end of the 20-year mission of the spacecraft, which has explored Saturn for the past five months, has resulted in overflowing expressions of grief. "It's going to do this as long as it can".

The probe is running low on the fuel it uses for course corrections and may soon be impossible to control.

Atmospheric models suggest that the spacecraft's last signal will be received back on Earth at 7:55:06 a.m. EDT (1155:06 GMT; 4:55:06 a.m. PDT). "It will radiate across the Solar System for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone", said Nasa project manager Earl Maize.

NASA launched Cassini toward Saturn in 1997.

A giant dish in Canberra, Australia, will be in prime position to track the probe.

Milestones in Cassini's final dive toward Saturn in September 2017.

A giant of a moon appears before a giant of a planet undergoing seasonal changes in this natural color view of Titan and Saturn from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft
Cassini: 20-Year Mission to Saturn Nears Grand Finale

Surface observations on Titan are planned at LPL, and then sent to the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations, or CICLOPS, at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which Porco heads as director.

NASA has begun to evaluate proposals for future missions to Saturn, as the Cassini spacecraft performs its final approach to the planet, SpaceNews reported Wednesday.

All pictures must be downlinked and the cameras switched off before the death plunge can begin.

The images Huygens sent back showed startling Earth-like features similar to rivers and shorelines. This way, Cassini will be able to measure gravity and magnetic fields, evaluate the total main-ring mass to estimate the system's age and longevity, and sample Saturn's ring particles, innermost radiation belts and upper atmosphere before burning up. More importantly, Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer (INMS) instrument also found that the ocean may contain nearly all the ingredients needed for life to evolve. "And then to take instruments built for other purposes and turn them toward sampling and flying through the plumes and actually measuring the constituents - finding a salty global ocean containing organics, the possibility of hydrothermal ventsand just revealing a world that we thought was completely frozen solid when we first got to Saturn". Named after the 17th-century Dutch astronomer who discovered Titan, Christiaan Huygens, Huygens was a project of the European Space Agency (ESA) which landed on Titan on January 14, 2005, sending data back to Earth for 90 minutes. Understanding alien ocean worlds won't just help scientists understand their own-it's also the most likely path to discovering alien life.

The team made a decision to destroy Cassini out of fear it could crash into Enceladus or Titan, two of the most likely candidates for life elsewhere in our solar system. "When we started I was kind of the tutor and he the tutoree", Larry said. "That blew our minds". Proposals submitted and now under review through NASA's New Frontier program include potential missions to Titan and Enceladus, Green said.

It is known as the Cassini-Huygens mission because it delivered ESA's Huygens probe to Titan - the "first descent and landing on a world in the outer solar system", according to NASA.

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