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

15 September 2017

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will make its plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15, after 20 years in space.

NASA's Cassini Spacecraft has been orbiting that planet since 2004.

Mission engineers will use the information gathered from the encounter they dubbed "the goodbye kiss" to make sure the vessel is following the right path to plunge into the gas giant's atmosphere.

Even then, Cassini will transmit new data about the planet's composition as long as its antenna remains pointed toward Earth, with the assist from small thrusters.

The reason NASA is destroying Cassini is because of the spacecraft's most astonishing discovery. "The haze has cleared remarkably as the summer solstice has approached", Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker said in a news conference September 13.

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

This will likely happen around 6:30 a.m.

Just before 2am today the Cassini spacecraft sent a routine message, as it has done dozens of times before during its 4.9 billion-mile mission.

"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager.

Saturn is something of a solar system unto itself (minus the requisite sun). Not even Cassini's plutonium core will survive the plunge into Saturn's gravity well.

Cassini shoots across Saturn's skies as it disintegrates and melts. It will look like a shooting star. Artists impression
Cassini Took Its Last Flyby Before Its Death Plunge On Friday

The deliberate destruction of Cassini is by NASA is to ensure the craft's earthly elements do not accidentally contaminate Saturn's moons for future exploration.

Cassini's grand finale actually began in April, with a series of dives between Saturn's rings, close to the planet and its moons, providing unprecedented insight.

Cassini's mission has produced a treasure trove of scientific data and mesmerizing images.

But Friday's dive will be like no other. ESA's Huygens probe to the surface of Titan flew to Saturn mounted to Cassini and the agency was a partner with NASA and the Italian Space Agency, ASI, on the mission. The mission already had achieved great success, and despite the chance of pounding Cassini with ring debris, flight controllers directed the spacecraft into the narrow gap between the rings and Saturn's cloud tops. The resulting information has contributed to almost 4,000 published scientific papers and some 5,000 people have worked on the mission over the years, according to NASA.

But as with all things involving spaceflight, the reason for Cassini's collision course with Saturn is nothing if not practical.

There's little chance telescopes will see the 20-year, US$3.26-billion mission come to an end. After 13 years in orbit around Saturn, and hundreds of fly-bys of the moons it was sent to study, the Cassini probe has nearly run out of fuel. Serendipitous observations showed that icy jets erupt from Enceladus. We've seen the surface of Titan and watched its liquid methane flow, fall like rain into massive hydrocarbon seas.

"The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful, and it's coming to an end", said Curt Niebur, a program scientist for NASA.

But why is NASA crashing the spacecraft instead of letting it orbit indefinitely?

Intrigued by Cassini's discoveries, scientists have submitted concepts for future "spacecraft to drift on the methane seas of Titan and fly through the Enceladus plume to collect and analyze samples for signs of biology" that are now under consideration, according to NASA.

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