‘CASSINI’ ENDS

Space­craft pro­duced 450,000 im­ages since it be­gan mis­sion in 2004

New Straits Times - - World -

TAMPA

UNITED States space agency Nasa’s Cassini space­craft ended its groundbreaking 13year mis­sion to Saturn yes­ter­day with a me­teor-like plunge into the ringed planet’s at­mos­phere, trans­mit­ting data un­til the fi­nal fiery mo­ment.

Cassini, the first space­craft to or­bit Saturn, lost con­tact with Earth at 11.55am GMT, shortly after it en­tered the gas gi­ant’s crush­ing at­mos­phere at about 113,000kph, the Na­tional Aero­nau­tics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion (Nasa) said.

Cassini’s fi­nal trans­mis­sions were ex­pected to in­clude un­prece­dented data from the at­mos­phere’s up­per fringe about 1,915km above Saturn’s cloud tops. The data took 86 min­utes to reach Nasa an­ten­nas in Can­berra, Aus­tralia.

“Not only do we have an en­vi­ron­ment that is over­whelm­ing with an abun­dance of sci­en­tific mys­ter­ies and puz­zles, but we’ve had a space­craft that’s been able to ex­ploit it,” Earl Maize, Cassini project man­ager at Nasa’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia, said at a brief­ing on Wed­nes­day.

Cassini’s fi­nal dive ended a mis­sion that gave sci­en­tists a ring­side seat to the sixth planet from the Sun. The craft’s dis­cov­er­ies in­cluded sea­sonal changes on Saturn, a hexagon-shaped pat­tern on the north pole and the moon Ti­tan’s re­sem­blance to a pri­mor­dial Earth.

Cassini also found a global ocean on the moon Ence­ladus, with ice plumes spout­ing from its sur­face. Ence­ladus had be­come a promis­ing lead in the search for places where life could ex­ist out­side Earth.

The space­craft had pro­duced 450,000 im­ages and 635 gi­ga­bytes of data since it be­gan prob­ing Saturn and its 62 known moons in July 2004. Cassini is a co­op­er­a­tive project be­tween Nasa, the Euro­pean Space Agency and the Ital­ian Space Agency.

Since Cassini was run­ning low on fuel, Nasa crashed it into Saturn to avoid any chance the space­craft could some­day col­lide with and con­tam­i­nate Ti­tan, Ence­ladus or an­other moon that has the po­ten­tial for in­dige­nous mi­cro­bial life.

Cassini started a se­ries of 22 or­bital dives in April, us­ing Ti­tan’s grav­ity to sling­shot it­self into the un­ex­plored area be­tween the planet and its rings.

The space­craft stud­ied Saturn’s at­mos­phere and took mea­sure­ments to de­ter­mine the size of the planet’s rocky core.

Nasa sci­en­tists had said Cassini’s fi­nal photo as it heads into Saturn’s at­mos­phere will likely be of gaps in the rings caused by tiny moons. Reuters

EPA PIC

An il­lus­tra­tion of Nasa’s ‘Cassini’ space­craft dur­ing its fi­nal plunge into Saturn’s at­mos­phere.

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