Cassini Grand Finale: Orbiter Goes Out in a Blaze on Friday


NASA's Cassini spacecraft launched on October 15, 1997, from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Then it was supposed to call it quits in 2010. Finally, they get to move on.

Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini discovered four of Saturn moons in the 17th century, although scientists have since identified more than 60.

And now, after completing 13 years of a journey around the ring planet, Cassini is going to destroy itself inside the Saturn's atmosphere on September 15.

On Thursday afternoon, NASA's $3.3 billion Cassini spacecraft will capture one final image: A close-up of its eventual killer, the gas giant Saturn.

The most prevalent and perhaps lasting "souvenir" of the Cassini mission is the image archive it filled over the past 20 years. It doesn't help that NASA's social media team insists on having it behave like a semi-sentient entity on Twitter.

With Cassini running out of fuel, therefore being out of our control, they want to avoid the remote possibility of a collision with the moons Titan or Enceladus, which could both conceivably host life.

If you want a visual update that includes experts from JPL, PBS NOVA featured a one-hour episode on Cassini, "Death Dive to Saturn" on Wednesday, Sept, 13, which is now available to stream.

However, NASA TV is broadcasting live online video of the final stages of Cassini's "Grand Finale", the moment its last stream of data comes in, and - by extension - confirmation that it's died. Cassini has provided some impossibly great photos of Saturn and its moons over the past decade, and it's gone above and beyond what was originally planned for it.

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A full-scale engineering model of Cassini, on loan from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), has been at the California Science Center in Los Angeles for longer than the mission has been at Saturn. Cassini remained in orbit around Saturn, the only spacecraft to ever circle the planet.

And that's not the only Cassini data that needs further analysis: Even (relatively) basic mass calculations will be textbook-changing discoveries. One question the probe may answer on its death plunge is how old the rings are. Some are surprisingly simple, like pinning down exactly how long Saturn's day is.

"Twice during the entire mission, we had the sun occulted by Saturn, so we were able to point the cameras in that direction without frying them and capture the planet with this lovely, ghostly backlight", said Barber.

The Royal Mail, the United Kingdom's postal service, did though commemorate Cassini as part of a 2012 six stamp "Space Science" set featuring imagery from the European Space Agency's (ESA) missions. Few would have suspected Titan would be teeming with complex organic molecules-not all that dissimilar from the building blocks of life.

"We do see the water, but we see other constituents as well", he said. "But now, that's exactly what we're talking about doing".

And really, Cassini has totally reshaped scientists' theories around oceans in general. On Jan. 14, 2005, Huygens would make history as the first - and, so far, only - humanmade object to touch down on a world in the outer solar system.

The Royal Mail (UK) issued in 2012 a postage stamp that featured a Cassini image of Saturn and its rings. "You're racing against the clock at that point", he said. "Enceladus, Titan, and Europa and others like them are worthy of specific future exploration". 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.

Why was Cassini's mission significant?

However, signal reception is generally used to mark mission times to avoid confusion. That's just what Cassini accomplished.