An Emotional End to an Important Mission

NASA’s Cassini Probe End Its 20-Year Journey

Sunday, September 17, 2017 - 14:34

The vehicle’s signal of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft which has been sent into Saturn’s upper atmosphere, was lost, indicating it had broken apart irrevocably during its rapid descent toward the planet.

The Verge reports that the mission team behind Cassini planned to send the spacecraft into Saturn in order to protect the planetary system. Two of Saturn’s moons — Enceladus and Titan — are considered tantalizing places that could potentially host life, and NASA wants to continue studying these worlds in the future.

But the agency didn’t want to risk Cassini accidentally crashing into one of these moons and spreading around Earth microbes. So the team decided to bring Cassini closer to Saturn than ever before to do some final science, before sending the probe into the planet to meet its fiery end.

Launched in 1997, Cassini traveled seven years through and across 2.2 billion miles of space to reach Saturn. It then spent more than a decade whirling around the planet and flying close by the many moons in the system, gathering data and making discoveries that many at NASA never even expected.

“This has been an incredible mission, an incredible team,” Earl Maize, Cassini’s program manager, said in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory once the signal had been lost. “I’m going to call this ‘end of mission.’”

Cassini’s atmospheric dive started around 6:31AM ET, but researchers didn’t receive word of the vehicle’s destruction until about 83 minutes later. That’s because of the distance between Saturn and Earth, which spans nearly a billion miles. It took a while for Cassini’s last signal from Saturn to travel the vast distance through space and then get picked up by giant receiving antennas in Australia. NASA predicted it would receive the final signal at 7:55AM ET, and wound up getting it about half a minute later than expected.

Just because Cassini no longer exists doesn’t mean the work is over. Scientists still need to decode the last bits of data the vehicle gathered during its plunge, as well as all of the information the probe has received during its journey at Saturn. It could be years before researchers truly understand what Cassini saw during its final descent.

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