Loss of Signal: Cassini Spacecraft Plunges Into Saturn

Violet Powell
September 16, 2017

Scientists feared the craft would collide with Titan or Enceladus, two of Saturn's moons, that have in the past 10 years shown a potential to host life. It unveiled moonlets embedded in the rings. The storms can disrupt the planet's climate for years to come. "The signal from the spacecraft is gone and within the next 45 seconds, so will be the spacecraft", said NASA JPL Cassini program manager Earl Maize. "Almost like we've taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings". It would destroy the probe, but it would also provide prized new data about Saturn's atmosphere.

An artist's impression of Cassini entering the Saturnian atmosphere.

Cassini was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1997, following which it spent seven years in transit and then another 13 years orbiting Saturn. It arrived at its target planet in 2004.

The Huygens lander separated from Cassini and plopped down on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan shortly after the arrival.

Cassini was estimated to last about a minute and a half in Saturn's atmosphere before high temperatures ripped apart and melted its components. NASA predicts that it will lose contact with Cassini at 7:55 AM ET, about 930 miles above Saturn's clouds.

So is there life beyond Earth?: Scientists told The Los Angeles Times that the Cassini mission convinced them that life is possible beyond just Mars, Earth and Venus.

Cassini's grand finale took place earlier today.

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"We're trying to find out exactly what is coming from the rings and what is due to the atmosphere", Hunter Waite, Cassini team lead for the mass spectrometer instrument and an atmospheric scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said at the September 13 news conference. Cassini has been exploring the 6th planet from the Sun - Saturn for more than a decade. Scientists wanted one last look to see if Peggy had broken free of its ring. This was a first for a spacecraft.

"But we recognise that it is important to bring the mission to an end in a tidy and controlled manner". Or perhaps multiple such collisions occurred.

But Cassini still made the most of its final descent.

During multiple close flybys, Cassini used its full science payload to detect and analyze water-rich plumes erupting from the moon's south pole far into space, a spectacular discovery that McEwen considers one of the highlights of the entire mission.

However, there's another reason for ending the mission in such a spectacular fashion: "We have the opportunity to do some really cool science", Bittner says. Its lakes hold liquid methane, which could hold some new, exotic form of life. Cassini entered the gap and came out again 22 times during its mission - the last time being just last week. For this achievement he received the Society's Gold Medal in 2014, as did RAS Fellow Professor Michele Dougherty, who led the Cassini Magnetometer team following on from Professor David Southwood (also a former president of the RAS, from 2012 to 2014). "We were working Cassini well before that, designing the instrument, building it, testing it, making sure it was ideal".

As it happens, a number of moons in the solar system look like they have global oceans - Enceladus and Ganymede are two - so Mimas having one wasn't such a wild idea.

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