Kamikaze Cassini ends his­toric trip

Geraldton Guardian - - News - David Reneke

When you read this, NASA’s Cassini space­craft will have crashed into the gi­ant ringed world Saturn, where spring lasts for seven years.

It’s a planned kamikaze drop to avoid the space­craft one day col­lid­ing with any of Saturn’s 60-plus moons that may con­tain ba­sic life.

When the Cassini space­craft hur­tles at 111,000km/h through Saturn’s mys­te­ri­ous rings and into the planet’s hy­dro­gen and ice at­mos­phere, NASA mis­sion con­trol will be ready to record his­tory.

They’ll be re­ly­ing on the deep space an­tenna in Can­berra to han­dle the his­toric fi­nale to a 7.8 bil­lion-km voy­age. CSIRO’s team at the Can­berra Deep Space Com­mu­ni­ca­tion Com­plex will cap­ture the fi­nal nine hours of sig­nals from Cassini un­til it plunges into Saturn, 20 years af­ter its launch from Cape Canaveral.

The Cassini space­craft spent 13 years or­bit­ing Saturn. It re­vealed the planet and its rings in strik­ing de­tail, found liq­uid around ev­ery cor­ner, and in­vig­o­rated the idea alien life not only ex­ists, but could be right on our doorstep.

Launched on Oc­to­ber 15, 1997, Cassini trav­elled for six years be­fore reach­ing Saturn.

The sixth planet lies an av­er­age of 1.5 bil­lion kilo­me­tres from Earth. Cassini took the scenic route, or­bit­ing the Sun to fly by Venus twice, then Earth, then to a grav­ity-as­sist ma­noeu­vre at Jupiter be­fore reach­ing its des­ti­na­tion.

They call it the “sling-shot ef­fect”.

The craft has been or­bit­ing the ringed planet since July 1, 2004, study­ing Saturn’s fas­ci­nat­ing moons, tiny ring par­ti­cles, and tur­bu­lent at­mo­spheric storms, in­clud­ing a mas­sive hexag­o­nal swirling storm at the north pole that could swal­low the Earth whole. The data sig­nals take more than 80 min­utes to reach earth at the speed of light.

Cassini is the most dis­tant plan­e­tary or­biter ever launched and will be com­pletely ripped apart as it plunges through Saturn’s thick clouds. The grav­ity will crush it and the fric­tion will melt what’s left. If it trans­mits data for just a few min­utes we’ll be do­ing well.

Septem­ber is a his­toric month for other rea­sons.

It’s 40 years since Voy­agers 1 and 2 were launched to study the outer So­lar Sys­tem. They were launched in 1977 to take ad­van­tage of a favourable align­ment of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Nep­tune, and are now ex­plor­ing the outer bound­ary of the “he­lio­sphere” where the Sun’s en­ergy ba­si­cally fin­ishes.

Both probes con­tinue to col­lect and re­lay use­ful sci­en­tific data. On Au­gust 25, 2012, data from Voy­ager 1 in­di­cated it had be­come the first hu­man-made ob­ject to en­ter true in­ter­stel­lar space.

Voy­ager 1 is mov­ing with a ve­loc­ity of 17km/sec. and could reach an­other star sys­tem within 80,000 years.

An­other his­toric mo­ment was reached on Au­gust 21 as more than one bil­lion peo­ple, di­rectly and on­line, watched what was billed as the Great Amer­i­can Eclipse. It was the first time in 99 years a so­lar eclipse crossed the US and lived up to its rep­u­ta­tion as the most watched sky event in his­tory.

Pic­ture: NASA

NASA’s Cassini space­craft, which has been in or­bit around Saturn since 2004, has come to the end of its mis­sion.

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