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Well, NASA's Cassini is dead

16 September 2017, 01:07 | Katrina Lee

An artist's rendition of the interior of Saturn's moon Enceladus. NASA JPL-Caltech

Enceladus ocean

Dutiful to the end, the spacecraft sampled Saturn's atmosphere Friday morning as it made its final plunge.

Scientists at U.S. space agency NASA expect Cassini's final transmission to reach Earth about 1155 GMT on Friday (9:55 Saturday AEST), 83 minutes after the density of the giant gas planet's atmosphere is likely to cause the spacecraft to tumble, severing its radio signal. But there are proposals to go back, submitted under NASA's New Frontiers program.

One of Cassini's most important - and surprising - discoveries during its 13 years at Saturn was that the moon Enceladus has an ocean of liquid saltwater beneath its frozen surface. Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Mike Watkins said most of what there's now in science textbooks about Saturn comes from Cassini while noting that the discoveries are so "compelling" that they must go back. But the agency didn't want to risk Cassini accidentally crashing into one of these moons and spreading around Earth microbes.

After orbiting Saturn for 13 years as part of an unprecedented study of the ringed planet, Cassini's planned demise came in dramatic fashion Friday Sept. 15, 2017 as the spacecraft plunged into the atmosphere and disintegrated.

The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting at more than 122,000km/h.

Cassini launched in 1997 and traveled for seven years before reaching Saturn in 2004.

Enceladus ocean annotated
NASA JPL-Caltech

CU scientists gathered Friday morning to watch the NASA live stream Cassini burned up. This disposal method ensures Enceladus and Titan remain pristine for future exploration. The vehicle has also taught us much about the unique nature of Titan, showing that the moon has lakes and rivers of methane on its surface. "I'm going to call this the end of mission", said Maize, once the signal disappeared.

And even faced with imminent death, Cassini persevered.

"Maybe a trickle of telemetry left, but we just heard the signal from the spacecraft is gone, and within the next 45 seconds, so will the spacecraft". The spacecraft continued to send back data even as it made its final approach into the ringed planet after spending almost 20 years in space.

Cassini was estimated to last about a minute and a half in Saturn's atmosphere before high temperatures ripped apart and melted its components. It also captured some final images of Titan and close-ups of Saturn's rings. The spacecraft emptied its onboard solid-state recorder of all science data, prior to reconfiguring for a near-real-time data relay during the final plunge, NASA said. On the evening of 14 September, the Cassini spacecraft sent back its final images of the Saturn system. It was a billion miles aways when it crashed on Saturn, a gas giant 764 times larger than Earth by volume.

Many grounds telescoped were invited to witness the glorious event though spotting the explosion from the distance of a billion miles was nearly impossible.

The center, at 518 Northampton Street, scheduled two free events in honor of Cassini's conclusion, which use Nurture Nature's spherical projection screen to track the Cassini's journey from Earth, around Venus, past Jupiter and to Saturn, incorporating a history of space exploration. The only difference was a clock displayed above one of the room's main monitors, counting down the minutes until the signal from the spacecraft was lost.

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