NASA’s school bus-size orbiter is to finally flame out and end its 14-year mission of revealing Saturn’s secrets.
On Friday September 15, just hours before the Cassini spacecraft sends itself plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, the spacecraft will live-stream a torrent of final data back to Earth in one last hurrah before going out in a literal blaze of glory.
For the first and final time, Cassini will enter Saturn’s upper atmosphere on Friday and beam the last of its data as it hurtles down into Saturn’s lower levels.
The briefest of histories and a nuclear reactor in space
The Cassini-Huygens mission was a joint endeavor of NASA, the European Space Agency, and somewhat bizarrely, the Italian Space Agency (Who knew?). It was the first mission to orbit Saturn and explore its environs in detail. Launched back in 1997, a year before anyone had heard of Google and people still made music worth listening to (When did I turn into my father?) Cassini reached the Saturn system in 2004, and has since been a tour of the giant planet, its rings, and performing close up studies.
Cassini is the most distant planetary orbiter ever launched and has made many astonishing discoveries in its near 14 year adventure.
Speaking about Cassini, its lead propulsion engineer Todd Barber said. “The entire concept of ‘ocean worlds’ as revealed by Cassini and [earlier NASA probe] Galileo may well drive future outer planet exploration. In fact, it’s possible the most promising place to look for life in the solar system outside of Earth is among these oceans worlds in the outer solar system.”
Over the course of its 20-year mission, Cassini has made nearly 300 orbits of the ringed planet, taken some 500,000 high definition pictures, and sent back almost 600GB of data back to Earth. The resulting information has contributed to nearly 4,000 published scientific papers and some 5,000 people have worked on the mission over the years, according to NASA.
Live-streaming like the McGregor v Mayweather fight?
Sadly, no. There won’t be any more pictures. Scientists are instead more concerned about the final data Cassini can gather in its final moments of actual scientific value. The live stream will instead consist mostly of information about the makeup of the dust and gas in Saturn’s atmosphere, measurements of the planet’s magnetic field, and data in radio, infrared, and ultraviolet wavelengths.
“As we fly through the atmosphere, we are able to literally scoop up some molecules, and from those we can figure out the ground truth in Saturn’s atmosphere,” says Scott Edgington, a Cassini project scientist. “Just like almost everything else in this mission, I expect to be completely surprised.”
Why Cassini must die!
The decision to destroy Cassini is mostly to do with trying to protect Saturn’s moons from any potential manmade contamination. Thanks to Cassini, NASA now knows that some of Saturn’s planetary worlds hide liquid water and may have the potential to support life. Cassini also has an onboard nuclear-powered generator, perhaps the best place for nuclear reactors. But also, no one wants to irradiate any potential domestic life that may exist there.
Cassini should begin entering Saturn’s atmosphere at some point on Friday. For exact times and also for links to the live stream, use this link, right here.