Cassini: 20-Year Mission to Saturn Nears Grand Finale

Cassini: 20-Year Mission to Saturn Nears Grand Finale

Cassini changed the way scientists understood the Saturn system and raised new questions: Could there be a liquid water.

The dive that Cassini is now performing is the very last part of its Grand Finale which included 22 spectacular dives through Saturn's iconic rings. But even efficient spacecraft driving burns some fuel - with 6,504 pounds (2,950 kilograms) of propellent burned and just 1 pound (0.5kg) left in Cassini's tank, it's time to end the mission and crash the spacecraft into Saturn while NASA's team still has control.

On several occasions in Cassini's 294 orbits around Saturn, the ringed gas giant eclipsed the sun giving the spacecraft the flawless opportunity to photograph the planet from a unique angle.

Because Saturn is so far from Earth, Cassini will have been gone for about 83 minutes by the time its final signal reaches NASA's Deep Space Network station in Australia on September 15. That is expected to happen at around 7:56 am EDT (11:56 am, GMT).

But contact will quickly be lost once the spacecraft enters Saturn's atmosphere at a high speed.

The UVIS has already fostered "scores of dazzling discoveries" - including a salty, subterranean ocean on one of Saturn's moons which scientists think may have conditions favorable for primitive life. The signal shall be lost at around 930 miles (1,500 Kilometeres) above Saturn's cloud tops. Scientists still haven't been able to differentiate between Saturn's magnetic field axis and its rotation axis, which surprises even them: "We figured it'd kind of jump out at us", Neiber says.

From orbit, Cassini has provided researchers with such a wealth of data that its mission was extended twice, first for the northern hemisphere's spring equinox in 2010 and then for the summer solstice in 2017. "It will radiate across the solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone", Cassini project manager at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, Earl Maize said.

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

The important discoveries of Saturn include the global ocean indicating hydrothermal activity inside Enceladus which hinted scientists that it could sustain life. Cassini has collected 450,000 images using a visible light camera. This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 25 degrees above the ringplane.

Saturn is on average 890 million miles from Earth, and it takes around 83 minutes for radio waves to cross that distance at the speed of light, making communication hard. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute. Of Cassini's 162 targeted flybys of Saturn's 53 named and nine unnamed moons, 127 were of Titan.

The Cassini spacecraft is a victim of its own success.

Evidence for subsurface oceans of water were discovered by Cassini inside both Enceladus and Titan, making them prime targets for future NASA missions. The Cassini-Huygens mission was not only challenging, but expensive, so it was clear worldwide collaboration (and sharing of costs) was essential, as was maintaining political support for the project.

Its demise will be the end of a space mission that has yielded an unprecedented amount of knowledge about a mysterious planet.

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