The Cassini Mission
The NASA Cassini space probe mission, launched in 1997, is reaching a conclusion this month after a remarkable journey that saw it reach Saturn in 2007. Cassini is to make the first of a series of dives through the 2400 kilometer gap between Saturn and its rings as planned for the mission’s grand finale.
“No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we’ll attempt to boldly cross 22 times,” said the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, Thomas Zurbuchen.
The mission will officially end on September 15th after a planned fall through Saturn’s atmosphere. All the while, the unmanned probe is going to be transmitting data from a number of instruments until the signal ends.
The Cassini Mission
Since leaving Earth in 1997 and arriving at Saturn in 2004, the space probe has been touring the system with an up-close study of the planet, its rings, and moons. In the course of the journey, the probe has made some startling discoveries including a global ocean with Enceladus, as well as, the liquid methane seas on Titan.
Before the Cassini probe took detailed images of Saturn, it dropped a probe companion dubbed Huygens on Titan. After almost two decades in space, the spacecraft is drawing near to the end of its mission and rightfully so considering it is running low on fuel as one would imagine.
The grand finale
This was all part of the plan to end the mission with a plunge into Saturn in 2017, and was decided on by the space organization in 2010. Using expertise received over the lifetime of the mission, the probe’s engineers designed a flight plan which would maximize the scientific value of sending the spacecraft toward its plunge into the planet on September 15.Cassini has one last mission this year, though. On the April 22, Cassini is meant to make a final pass by Titan using the gravitational pull of the moon to slingshot itself to a new orbit passing inside the 1200 mile wide gap between the edge of the atmosphere of Saturn and the innermost rings.
NASA has hopes the probe has enough grit to survive 22 dives inside the rings which will reveal details about their age and structure. However, if even a ring particle hits the probe at its velocity of 70,000 miles per hour could spell doom for the mission. Joan Stupik, Cassini flight engineer, told reporters during a news conference, “At those speeds, even a tiny particle can do damage.”
Researchers hope to learn if the rings are just as old as the planet, which is about 4.6 billion years old, or whether they were created after a passing comet was shattered by the tremendous gravity of the planet.
During the ring encounters, the probe is going to study the planet’s atmosphere and take measurements in order to ascertain the size of the rocky core which is believed to be at the center of this celestial ball of gas.
However long the probe lasts as it falls through the atmosphere, it is going to be worth it with some describe the event as a grand finale no matter how it ends. This is because it is going into a region that has never been explored previously and some of the discoveries Cassini will make during this last leg may be the best of the entire 20-year odyssey.