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15 September 2017, 12:25 | Camille Rivera
US Spacecraft Cassini Readies for Fiery Plunge Into Saturn After 13-Year Mission
The Cassini spacecraft is making its final plunge into Saturn, taking its last pictures of the planet, its rings and its moons.
When it launched, Cassini-Huygens was the biggest, most complex interplanetary spacecraft ever flown.
And so a man-made meteor will streak across Saturn's sky, though confirmation of the spacecraft's demise more than a billion kilometers away, and on the wrong side of the asteroid belt, will not reach Earth for another 83 minutes, when the signals beamed home from the probe fall silent.
The Royal Mail (UK) issued in 2012 a postage stamp that featured a Cassini image of Saturn and its rings.
The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer will act as the "nose" of the spacecraft, directly sampling the composition and structure of the atmosphere - something that can't be done from orbit, said Hunter Waite, team lead for the spectrometer. There are some huge gaps in the rings where the atmosphere is silent and less dusty. The craft is running out of fuel so NASA is disposing of it by setting it on a path to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere.
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. "It will radiate across the solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone". Cassini also carried the Huygens probe, which landed on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, in 2005 and sent data about the moon's surface and atmosphere to Cassini for 72 minutes before the signal was interrupted by the horizon. The mission's end is a loss for an entire scientific community.
Then, duty dispatched, it accelerated towards Saturn's surface. A case for possible (primitive) life was discovered by the Cassini mission, when it did a fly-by of Enceladus (another moon of Saturn) and discovered jets of water vapour shooting out into space.
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 final dive on Friday is a dramatic conclusion to this unique, long and scientifically valuable goodbye.
Esposito says Cassini has helped scientists better understand Saturn. Why is the program ending now after 13 years? Geysers on Enceladus, oceans on Titan, the weird polar hexagone of Saturn itself; all of these were dramatic subjects for detailed study. Of Cassini's 162 targeted flybys of Saturn's 53 named and nine unnamed moons, 127 were of Titan.
Launched in 1997, the Cassini spacecraft arrived among Saturn's rings in July 2004.
NASA sealed the then 20-year-old mission's fate when Cassini flew by Saturn's moon, Titan, on Monday, by using the world's gravity to shift Cassini's trajectory toward an inevitable destruction. "It's one of the things we expected to learn, but have not". The Cassini mission has given us answers to a lot of the outstanding questions that we had about this atmosphere - showing it to be similar to our own, with temperatures and pressures at Titan's surface meaning that methane can condense to a point where it creates clouds, and falls as rain.
Scientists are gearing up for the spectacular fiery grand finale of one of humanity's most ambitious and successful space missions.
And the spacecraft itself, as well as its instruments, are informing future missions that NASA has planned, like NASA's Europa Clipper mission to explore Jupiter's icy moon, launching in the 2020s.
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