Published: Fri, September 15, 2017
Sci-tech | By Jackie Newman

Cassini to crash into Saturn ending 20-year mission

Cassini to crash into Saturn ending 20-year mission

It will be possible, but hard, to observe Cassini's death from Earth, due to the spacecraft's small size and the position of Saturn in the sky.

The Royal Mail (UK) issued in 2012 a postage stamp that featured a Cassini image of Saturn and its rings. Through the eyes of Huygens, an instrument built by UA scientists and engineers, people on Earth could watch as the probe hurtled through the opaque and hazy atmosphere enshrouding Titan.

The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer will act as the "nose" of the spacecraft, directly sampling the composition and structure of the atmosphere - something that can't be done from orbit, said Hunter Waite, team lead for the spectrometer.

His team will also investigate the phenomenon of "ring rain", when water vapor and ice grains from the rings descend into the gas giant's atmosphere. About two minutes later, Cassini will burn and disintegrate completely - any traces of it will melt due to the heat and high pressure of the giant planet's hostile atmosphere.

Cassini blasted off in October 1997 and arrived in Saturn's region of the solar system in 2004.

This week, the spacecraft flew to within 120,000km of the Titan moon in order to nudge its trajectory enough to send it on a collision course with Saturn.

"The scientific legacy of the mission will extend long beyond its fiery end in the clouds of Saturn". Titan is Saturn's largest moon and is now the only known place in space outside of our own planet that collects water on the surface.

"By safely disposing of the spacecraft in Saturn's atmosphere, we avoid any possibility Cassini could impact one of Saturn's moons somewhere down the road, keeping them pristine for future exploration". A case for possible (primitive) life was discovered by the Cassini mission, when it did a fly-by of Enceladus (another moon of Saturn) and discovered jets of water vapour shooting out into space.

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The long-lived spacecraft's fateful dive was the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings. However, eight of Cassini's 12 science experiments will continue to run until the last second, gathering never before seen data about Saturn's atmosphere.

On the eve of its final descent, other instruments will make detailed observations of Saturn's aurora borealis, temperatures and polar storms.

For those who wish to share Cassini's last moments, mission control at JPL will stream the event live on NASA TV and website from 7:00 am to 8:30 am EDT (4:00 am to 5:30 am PDT) on September 15.

"Cassini-Huygens is an extraordinary mission of discovery that has revolutionized our understanding of the outer solar system", said Alexander Hayes, assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University. Why is the program ending now after 13 years?

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.

No trace of Cassini is expected to escape Saturn's gravity field.

In October of 1997, almost 20 years ago, NASA launched the last of its great probes to the outer planets. Cassini has collected 450,000 images using a visible light camera. Friday, September 15, 2017 shall be the day when Cassini dives into the mysterious planet's interior after 13 years of studying the planet's nature and any scope for habitation. We learned there are 3-D structures in the rings.

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