Cassini dies in blaze of cosmic glory
NASA spacecraft’s 20-year journey ends over Saturn
CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. — NASA’s Cassini spacecraft disintegrated in the skies above Saturn on Friday in a final, fateful blaze of cosmic glory, following a remarkable journey of 20 years.
Confirmation of Cassini’s expected demise came about 7:55 a.m.
That’s when radio signals from the spacecraft — its last scientific gifts to Earth — came to an abrupt halt.
The radio waves went flat, and the spacecraft fell silent.
Cassini actually burned up like a meteor 83 minutes earlier as it dove through Saturn’s atmosphere, becoming one with the giant gas planet it set out in 1997 to explore. But it took that long for the news to reach Earth a billion miles away.
The only spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn, Cassini showed us the planet, its rings and moons up close in all their splendour. Perhaps most tantalizing, ocean worlds were unveiled on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbour life.
Dutiful to the end, the Cassini snapped its last photos Thursday and sampled Saturn’s atmosphere Friday morning as it made its final plunge. It was over in a minute or two.
Program manager Earl Maize made the official pronouncement:
“This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft and you’re all an incredible team,” Maize said. “I’m going to call this the end of mission.”
Flight controllers wearing matching purple shirts stood and embraced and shook hands. Project scientist Linda Spilker also had a purple handkerchief to wipe away tears.
“It felt so much like losing a friend,” she told reporters a couple of hours later.
More than 1,500 people, many of them past and present team members, had gathered at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for what was described as both a vigil and celebration. Even more congregated at nearby California Institute of Technology, which runs the lab for NASA.
The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting at more than 76,000 m.p.h (122,000 km/h). Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini’s last-gasp flash, but weren’t hopeful it would be spotted against the vast backdrop of the solar system’s second largest planet. The radio link actually held on a halfminute longer than expected.
“There are times in this world when things just line up, when everything is just about perfect. A child’s laugh, a desert sunset and this morning. It just couldn’t have been better,” said Maize. “Farewell, faithful explorer.” In all, Cassini collected more than 453,000 images and travelled 4.9 billion miles.
It was an international endeavour, with 27 nations taking part. The final price tag was $3.9 billion.
Seventeenth-century astronomers supplied the spacecraft names: Italy’s Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered four moons and the wide division in Saturn’s rings, and Holland’s Christiaan Huygens, who spotted the first and biggest moon, Titan.
The latest count is 62 moons, six of them found by Cassini.
The final Saturn ringscape photographed by Cassini.