NASA and JPL's Cassini spacecraft making final approach to Saturn

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has entered the final chapter of its mission
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has entered the final chapter of its mission
Author

14 September, 2017

After 13 years in orbit around Saturn, and hundreds of fly-bys of the moons it was sent to study, the Cassini probe has nearly run out of fuel.

This Friday evening (15 September) at about 9:54pm AEST, CSIRO's team at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex will capture the final signals from NASA's Cassini spacecraft as it plunges into Saturn's atmosphere at over 111,000 kph.

"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager.

Cassini has spent the past 20 years in space, including 13 years studying Saturn and its moons, and is now running out of fuel.

The station is one of NASA's three tracking stations around the world that provide vital two-way radio contact with spacecraft like Cassini.

The UVIS instrument will be turned on during Cassini's final dive into Saturn's atmosphere and will be routing data to Earth until the mission is over, said Esposito, one of many mission scientists who are gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, for Cassini's grand finale.

Inspired to learn more after flybys of Saturn by NASA's Voyager missions, the Cassini mission was created to be an global effort that united NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency. Its launch in 1997, though, was well after the fall of the Berlin Wall and yet its bold "mission to go where no man has gone before" would have made Gene Roddenberry (the liberal, pluralist creator of Star Trek) proud.

In the end, Cassini will have witnessed half of a Saturn year. Esposito, who used observations from the Voyager mission to compare the rings of Saturn, Jupiter and Neptune, believes Saturn's rings may be as old as the solar system, which is believed to have formed some 4.6 billion years ago. When Cassini arrived, the northern hemisphere of Saturn was emerging from winter. Cassini has collected 450,000 images using a visible light camera. These include in-depth studies that date and even weigh the astonishing rings, the discovery of methane lakes on the icy moon Titan, water plumes found squirting from the moon Enceladus and close-up views of the bright auroras at the planet's poles. We learned there are 3-D structures in the rings.

"Cassini has transformed our thinking in so many ways, but especially with regard to surprising places in the solar system where life could potentially gain a foothold", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.

"Cassini has enabled those future missions to be possible", said Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science.


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