THE GREAT CASSINI’S GRAND FINALE
The Cassini spacecraft sent its final string of data back to Earth early Friday morning, shortly before vaporizing in Saturn’s atmosphere, thereby ending a 20-year journey that is considered by many scientists to be one of the most successful missions in
The craft was launched in 1997 with a Titan 4B rocket carrying the orbiter and its attached Huygens probe. Developed by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, Cassini arrived in Saturn’s orbit in June 2004 after a 3.5-billion kilometre journey. For 13 years, Cassini and Huygens sent back remarkable images and data about newly discovered moons, geysers of water shooting into space, and lakes of hydrocarbons.
One of the last pieces of data captured by Cassini was an infrared image of the place into which it took its final plunge. The image, taken 15 hours before the spacecraft’s demise, reveals a spot on Saturn’s dark side just north of the planet’s equator where the spacecraft disintegrated shortly after losing contact with Earth.
Once the spacecraft ran out of fuel, NASA would not risk letting it remain aloft, where it might be knocked into its moons. In April, Cassini began 22 close-in orbits that took it between and behind Saturn’s rings. Earlier this week, NASA flew Cassini past Titan one last time, taking advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull to slingshot the spacecraft toward Saturn.
Just after 3:30 a.m. California time on Friday, Cassini entered Saturn’s atmosphere, plummeting at about 124,000 km-h before vaporizing.
During its last moments, the spacecraft’s instruments sampled the molecules in the planet’s atmosphere — information that scientists will use to understand the planet’s formation and composition.