NASA's Dollars 3.9 billion Cassini spacecraft today ended its 20-year-long groundbreaking journey with a fiery plunge into the Saturn's crushing atmosphere, beaming back never-before-seen images of the ringed planet and its mysterious moons until the last moment. For the 22 weeks prior to its destruction, the spacecraft swerved in between Saturn and its rings to collect information.
Project manager Earl Maize, center, left, and flight director Julie Webster hug in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, in Pasadena after confirmation of Cassini's demise.
"It will radiate across the solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone", said Maize. "I hope you're all as deeply proud of this unbelievable accomplishment, congratulations to you all, this has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're an incredible team, I am going to call this the end of mission", he added, to applause within the Mission Control room. Cassini's iridium-encased plutonium power source was likely the last part to be destroyed, according to NASA. But rather than careen into a canyon, the plucky probe took a final plunge into the object of its obsession.
Watkins added that nearly everything we know about Saturn comes from the Cassini mission. By the time it arrived, in 2004, people were fretting over what to reveal on their Facebook profiles.
Cassini was still sending data back to Earth in near-real time right up until radio contact was lost.
The twin Voyagers swung by Saturn in the 1970s and '80s, giving scientists a rough outline of the planet and its moons.
"It will be sad to see Cassini go on Friday, especially as the instrument we built is still working perfectly", said Stanley Cowley, professor of solar planetary physics at the University of Leicester. In its approximately 300 orbits around Saturn, it discovered 2 oceans, 3 seas, hundreds of lakes, 12 out of the 62 known moons, and confirmed that the biggest moon, Titan, contains hydrocarbons essential for life.
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The spacecraft made a deliberate plunge into Saturn's atmosphere to avoid the small possibility of it crashing into a potentially habitable moon, in particular Enceladus. "A very productive life", he says. "Scientists have worked on these their whole life". "That's risky. We had to wait until the end of the mission to take that risk".
"We don't have a gas gauge". Instead, mission controllers had to estimate the amount of fuel used by each maneuver.
NPR's Adam Cole, who helped produce a video commemorating the spacecraft's life and times, says: "Scientists [were] anxious that when [Cassini] loses power, it could crash into a pristine moon, contaminating a place where we might someday search for life". There won't be more like them until we decide to go back.
While the Cassini spacecraft is gone, its enormous collection of data about Saturn - the giant planet, its magnetosphere, rings and moons - will continue to yield new discoveries for decades to come. We knew that we were going to end today.
All of the mission's magnetosphere and plasma science instruments, plus the spacecraft's radio science system, and its infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers collected data during the final plunge.
The Cassini craft disintegrated in the skies above Saturn early Friday.
In particular, the spacecraft's Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer was directly sampling the atmosphere's composition, which can not be done from orbit.