Colorado's connection to NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn

Nettie James
September 15, 2017

NASA writes that this last distant encounter is informally referred to by the mission engineers as "the goodbye kiss".

"We'll be saddened, there's no doubt about it, at the loss of such an incredible machine", Cassini program manager Earl Maize said Wednesday during a news briefing at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It's going to do this as long as it can".

"It's essentially now a real-time instrument", Maize said. The live telecast shall be followed by a post-mission briefing from JPL at 9:30 a.m. EDT (13:30 UTC) which shall also air on NASA TV. "The final plunge will take place on the day side of Saturn, near local noon, with the spacecraft entering the atmosphere around 10 degrees north latitude".

Cassini also carried a small lander called Huygens, supplied by the European Space Agency, whose descent to the surface of Saturn's giant moon Titan made headlines around the world and marked the highpoint of the mission.

With low fuel, there is no way to abort the final maneuver.

"No-one ever thought that we could go to the outer part of the Solar System", he told BBC News. These and other pictures from orbiting Cassini confirmed that Titan has lakes, rivers and seas filled not with water, but liquid methane and ethane.

What other discoveries were made by Cassini? And NASA didn't want to risk contaminating the moons or any future studies of the moons with Earth particles. Such contamination could harm or create potential life. 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".

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.

Just a minute later, at some 940 miles (1,510 kilometers) above Saturn's clouds, the probe's communications will stop before Cassini begins to disintegrate moments later, NASA predicts. Named after the 17th-century Dutch astronomer who discovered Titan, Christiaan Huygens, Huygens was a project of the European Space Agency (ESA) which landed on Titan on January 14, 2005, sending data back to Earth for 90 minutes.

"You can think of Cassini as the first Saturn probe", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist.

"The discovery of Enceladus' plumes was my launchpad onto the mission, because the imaging team had no one assigned to design and acquire images of those spectacular plumes", Verbiscer said.

"Enceladus has no business existing", Niebur added, "and yet there it is - practically screaming at us, 'Look at me!" "I couldn't ask for more". Little moon Enceladus is believed to have a global underground ocean that could be sloshing with life more as we know it. The unmanned spacecraft that launched almost two decades ago has been sending groundbreaking data on Saturn and its moons since its arrival at the planet in 2004.

In the near term, though, numerous same researchers will be working on America's Clipper mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter that in many ways is just a big version of Enceladus.

"Because of the importance of Enceladus that Cassini has shown us, and of Titan, we had to make decisions on how to dispose of the spacecraft", said Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science.

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