17 July 2019
Cassini's intentional plunge into Saturn's atmosphere is meant to ensure that the planet's moons remain pristine for future exploration. Illustration: NASA
Cassini's intentional plunge into Saturn's atmosphere is meant to ensure that the planet's moons remain pristine for future exploration. Illustration: NASA

Cassini set to end 13-year tour of Saturn

The unmanned robotic spacecraft Cassini is ending its 13-year tour of the Saturn system on Friday, at around 7:55 a.m. EDT (7:55 p.m. in Hong Kong), with a death plunge into the ringed planet’s atmosphere.

NASA will tune in to watch the “grand finale” of the US$4-billion-plus probe, and the public can join in as the US space administration streams live shots from its Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission control in Pasadena, California.

The nearly live feed will start at 7 a.m. EDT, with scientists making commentaries on the mission’s incredible history and achievements, Vox news website reports.

As it enters into Saturn’s atmosphere at 120,000 kilometers per hour (76,000 mph), the spacecraft will be rapidly torn to pieces, according to BBC News.

At the JPL control center, this dramatic moment will just be indicated by a loss of signal. However, by the time NASA gets the last signal, Cassini will long have been gone since it takes about an hour and 20 minutes to transmit from Saturn to Earth – NASA puts it at 83 minutes. 

“The spacecraft’s final signal will be like an echo. It will radiate across the solar system for nearly an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.

The probe’s last transmissions will be received by antennas at NASA’s Deep Space Network complex in Canberra, Australia.

The plunge will be a bittersweet moment for the hundreds of scientists from various parts of the world who have taken part in the mission.

“It’s been part of my life for so long, this spacecraft, it’s going to be a shock to have this happen,” Vox quoted JPL engineer Thomas Burk as saying. “It’s bittersweet in that regard. But it’s a really exciting ending. When we stop getting data, that will be the moment of truth.”

Cassini’s intentional plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere is meant to ensure that the planet’s moons – in particular Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity – remain pristine for future exploration.

Even in its last moments, the probe will be sending more data about the planet, including its environment and chemical composition.

“We’ve done amazing science; it’s an amazing team. And I think we can celebrate that we’ve really eked every little bit of science that we could out of the Cassini spacecraft,” former NASA US chief scientist Ellen Stofan, who is part of the probe’s radar instrument group, told the BBC.

Cassini has made discoveries that have changed our understanding of Saturn, including moons around the planet, lakes of methane on Titan, jets of water erupting from Enceladus, and detailed observations of Saturn’s rings, Vox said.

“But then it’s what’s next? We want to go back to Titan, we want to go back to Enceladus; there’s so much we don’t know about the interior of Saturn, so people have talked about Saturn probe missions. There’s a lot more to be done,” Stofan said.

Stunning images of Saturn, its rings and moons

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