Watch live as Nasa's Cassini mission comes to an epic end

Pauline Gross
September 16, 2017

On Friday morning, the craft that has been exploring Saturn's system plunged into the planet's atmosphere and nearly immediately disintegrated.

Cassini-Huygens travelled to Saturn via a circuitous route, using the gravity assist technique to receive boosts in speed from the Earth, Venus, and Jupiter, and taking in an asteroid, Masursky, along the way. The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), the leading United Kingdom body for astronomy, space science and geophysics, counts among its members many of those involved in the mission, and offers its congratulations to the teams at NASA, ESA, ASI, and around the world, whose efforts saw the spacecraft deliver science from its launch to its destruction.

In fact, no other spacecraft in history has lingered so close to the ringed planet.

After 13 years of examining the wonders of Saturn and its surroundings, Cassini's journey in space has ended in fire after a last flood of data. Launched in 1997, Cassini traveled seven years through and across 2.2 billion miles of space to reach Saturn. This means that, although the spacecraft will begin to tumble and go out of communication at 3:31 a.m. PDT (1031 GMT) at Saturn, the signal from that event will not be received at Earth until 83 minutes later. They made a decision to steer it toward a fiery death in Saturn's atmosphere primarily to protect Titan and Enceladus - to ensure that any Earth microbes that may have hitched a ride aboard Cassini never contaminate those two possibly habitable moons.

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"The mission team hopes to gain powerful insights into the planet's internal structure and the origins of the rings, obtain the first-ever sampling of Saturn's atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings, and capture the closest-ever views of Saturn's clouds and inner rings", Nasa explains on its website. Perhaps most tantalizing, ocean worlds were unveiled by Cassini and its hitchhiking companion, the Huygens lander, on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbor life. "Every time we see Saturn in the night sky, we'll remember".

The 22 by 13 foot (6.7 by 4 meter) spacecraft is also credited with discovering icy geysers erupting from Enceladus, and eerie hydrocarbon lakes made of ethane and methane on Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

The probe transmitted all of its data, including the final images, back to earth. Simply because there is no "follow spacecraft" there, to send back true images of Cassini as it makes its plunge. "The signal from the spacecraft is gone and within the next 45 seconds, so will be the spacecraft", said NASA JPL Cassini program manager Earl Maize.

Cassini's final moments left us with parting pictures of Enceladus and Titan, new studies of the rings and a phenomenon called "ring rain", and spectacular details of the upper atmosphere of Saturn before it met its demise, ripped apart and burned up by Saturn's atmosphere in a space of about two minutes.

Other reports by GizPress

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