NASA scientists confirmed they received the last message from the Cassini spacecraft, which crashed into Saturn early Friday morning. The probe spent 20 years in space – the last 13 years it orbited around Saturn.
Cassini was built by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1990s and was sent to space on 1997. Ever since, the human probe reported important data to NASA, including the structure of Saturn’s rings, and the discovery of two moons, Titan and Enceladus, as potential targets in the search for life beyond our planet.
The probe is considered one of the most scientific accomplishments of our time, as Cassini executed the first-ever landing of a spacecraft in the outer solar system when it delivered the Huygens probe to Titan.
Cassini spacecraft crashes into Saturn after orbiting the planet for thirteen years
Cassini reported its final data early Friday morning. The last message it sent signaled the end of its amazing 20-year-run in outer space.
“The signal from the spacecraft is gone and within the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft,” said program manager Earl Maize from mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, just after 4:55 a.m. local time, according to The Washington Post. “This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft and you’re all an incredible team.”
The spacecraft was the first human probe to orbit Saturn, and it did so for 13 years after Cassini slipped into the planet’s orbit in 2004. While a lot of questions were answered because of the spacecraft, scientists were left with many inquiries about Saturn. For instance, scientists have yet to find out how long a day lasts in the ringed planet, and they have yet to understand its magnetic field.
Future missions will also have to say whether one of Saturn’s potentially habitable moons could be home to alien life. Jet Propulsion Laboratory Director Mike Watkins said most of what there’s now in science textbooks about Saturn comes from Cassini while noting that the discoveries are so “compelling” that they must go back.
After a 20-year flight, Cassini was running out of fuel, so NASA decided to crash Cassini before letting it remain aloft, where it could have been knocked into Titan, the moon with methane lakes, or Enceladus, the moon with jets of water in its southern pole. This week, the spacecraft passed Titan one last time and used its gravitational pull to set the course toward Saturn. Today, on its final journey, Cassini reported vital and never-before-seen data.
Last data sent by Cassini will help scientists understand Saturn’s formation and composition
At about 3:30 a.m. California time on Friday, the spacecraft entered Saturn’s atmosphere at a speed of about 77,000 miles per hour. For a couple of minutes, while its antenna was still pointed at Earth, Cassini sent out data on the new uncharted territory, as it was the first time the probe entered Saturn’s atmosphere.
That last piece of information –which Cassini sent after sampling the molecules in the planet’s atmosphere—will help scientists understand Saturn’s composition and formation.
“Those few last seconds were our first taste of the atmosphere of Saturn,” said Watkins. “Who knows how many Ph.D. theses are in that data?”
Just minutes after entering the atmosphere, Cassini vaporized. The signal of its last message didn’t reach Earth until 83 minutes after the spacecraft had vanished, due to its distant location.
NASA mission control room remained silent as Cassini’s signal disappeared. Then, they burst into applause. Among the attendees, Julie Webster, the spacecraft’s operations manager, had worked with Cassini since its invention. The Washington Post reports her voice cracked with emotion while saying Cassini was a “perfect spacecraft,” which did exactly what it was supposed to do.
‘Final kiss goodbye’ set course for Cassini’s end of journey
Sean Hsu, a scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who works on Cassini’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer, flew out to Pasadena (to NASA’s JPL) with his wife and two children to attend the end-of-mission event. He said when he explained to his 5-year-old daughter Liese why they were waking up so early to celebrate a spacecraft, the girl started to cry.
“It has been a tremendous mission to be a part of,” said Hsu, according to The Washington Post. “It has been a lot of new science, a lot of new data, and suddenly there will be no more data.”
NASA has no planned missions for Saturn at the moment, so Cassini will probably be the last spacecraft to orbit the planet in a while. The Cassini-Huygens –named after astronomers Giovanni Cassini and Christiaan Huygens—spacecraft took countless photos during its stay in space. Its final orbit around Titan, which set the course toward Saturn’s atmosphere, was dubbed “the final kiss goodbye” by NASA scientists.
Source: The Washington Post