NASA's Cassini spacecraft will go out in blaze of glory Friday

Delia Watkins
September 15, 2017

Cassini will plummet into Saturn's atmosphere early Friday morning (Sept. 15), ending its epic 13-year stint at the ringed planet with a bang.

Launched in 1997 with the European Space Agency's (ESA) Huygens probe, Cassini is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn.

Saturn's shadow on its rings as seen from the Cassini spacecraft. Cassini will then plunge into the planet at a speed of about 70,000 miles per hour.

The Royal Mail (UK) issued in 2012 a postage stamp that featured a Cassini image of Saturn and its rings. "The haze has cleared remarkably as the summer solstice has approached", Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker said in a news conference September 13. The small craft skimmed the outer edges of the planet's atmosphere and the inner edges of the rings, sending back awesome photographs. There are some huge gaps in the rings where the atmosphere is silent and less dusty.

Cassini should begin entering Saturn's atmosphere at some point on Friday. Eastern Time for the spacecraft, but given the time it takes for the signal to reach Earth, we will receive those last bits of data just before 8 a.m. - long after Cassini is "gone".

"There's no doubt about it, we'll be sad at the loss of such an incredible machine", said Earl Maize, program manager for the Cassini mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge.

The team chose 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.

The spacecraft has completed many moon flybys while observing seasonal changes on Saturn and Titan. It's information that will be studied and analyzed by scientists long after the end of Cassini.

Cassini flew by Titan one last time on Tuesday before transmitting images and scientific data from the flight.

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NASA and JPL officials called the close encounter with Titan - at an altitude of 73,974 miles above the moon's surface - a "goodbye kiss". So, rather than risk contaminating those moons with life from Earth, Cassini and any microbes it harbors will burn up on entry into Saturn's atmosphere.

Last April, NASA put Cassini on an ever-descending series of final orbits, leading to Friday's swan dive.

Scientists plan to collect data from the spacecraft's instruments until the very end of the mission. We set out to do something at Saturn, we did it, we did it extremely well, and we delivered more and more.

Evidence for subsurface oceans of water were discovered by Cassini inside both Enceladus and Titan, making them prime targets for future NASA missions. She also has served as a Cassini mission planner, designing observations of Saturn's icy moons using Cassini's infrared spectrometer and imaging cameras.

In the end, Cassini will have witnessed half of a Saturn year.

During their 40 years of operation, they have sent numerous of images which helped to understand minute details of planets - the Great Red Spot, the swirling clouds and the rings of Saturn.

But as with all things involving spaceflight, the reason for Cassini's collision course with Saturn is nothing if not practical. As it dives into Saturn, Cassini will be able to take measurements which could explain the phenomenon and in the process tell us more about how Saturn's rings formed and how they continue to interact with the planet.

When Cassini arrived, it witnessed a giant storm circling the planet for nine months.

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