Over and out: Cassini meets fiery death after 20-year space adventure

Janie Parker
September 16, 2017

A joint endeavour of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI), Cassini was a sophisticated robotic spacecraft orbiting the ringed planet and studying the Saturnian system in detail. For this achievement he received the Society's Gold Medal in 2014, as did RAS Fellow Professor Michele Dougherty, who led the Cassini Magnetometer team following on from Professor David Southwood (also a former president of the RAS, from 2012 to 2014). A number of Cassini scientists had suspected that there might be water vapor venting from.

Cassini collected 600 gigabytes of data, took 400,000 pictures and completely transformed our understanding of the planets. "I'm going to call this the end of mission". Seventeenth-century astronomers supplied the spacecraft names: Italy's Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered four moons and the wide division in Saturn's rings, and Holland's Christiaan Huygens, who spotted the first and biggest moon, Titan.

Cassini had its closest approach with Saturn's moon Titan on Monday, dubbed a "goodbye kiss" by the mission's engineers because it provided the gravity assist that sent the spacecraft on its final encounter with Saturn. Cassini finished its tour of the Saturn system with its Grand Finale, capped by Friday's intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn's moons - particularly Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity - remain pristine for future exploration. "We can't go there ourselves, so we build a spacecraft and load it up with instruments, and then we put on our hopes and desires and we send them there", said science planner Jo Pitesky.

Many members of the Cassini team refer to the spacecraft as a "she" and they ascribe "her" human traits: curiosity, intelligence, determination, valor.

"Congratulations to you all", Maize told the team. Scientists like Helfenstein are especially interested to learn about the age of Saturn's main rings. The only difference was a clock displayed above one of the room's main monitors, counting down the minutes until the signal from the spacecraft was lost. Instead, a viewing party was arranged on the campus of nearby Caltech. For numerous scientists and engineers who worked on the mission, it was a defining part of their lives and careers to which they were passionately devoted.

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"Not only were many new discoveries made, but the well-planned diversity of instrumentation and investigative cross-pollination among scientists of different disciplines allowed the discoveries to be analyzed and interpreted with great success".

"The mission has changed the way we think of where life may have developed beyond our Earth", said Andrew Coates, head of the Planetary Science Group at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London.

"It has been a tremendous mission to be a part of", he said.

With the loss of Cassini, the space around Saturn has gone dark. In contrast to Saturn's rings, which extend all the way around the planet, some of Neptune's rings are only partial.

Ralph Lorenz, one of the world's leading experts on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has worked on Cassini for his entire 27-year career. Serendipitous observations showed that icy jets erupt from Enceladus. They also found a global ocean on the moon Enceladus, with ice plumes spouting from its surface. Others have proposed similar missions to test for "biosignatures" in Titan's atmosphere. Because NASA chose to end Cassini's life by plunging it into the planet, "its bits and pieces are now one with Saturn itself", Spilker said. And it looked beyond the Saturn system, helping to redraw the shape of our solar system by gathering data that suggested our heliosphere-the area of the sun's influence that surrounds the solar system-may not have the comet-like shape predicted by existing models. "Cassini is there too".

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