Cassini commits Saturn ‘suicide’
Spacecraft disintegrates in atmosphere after 20-year mission
Tampa: After 20 years in space, Nasa’s famed Cassini spacecraft made an intentional death plunge into Saturn, ending a storied mission that scientists say taught us nearly everything we know about Saturn today and transformed the way we think about life elsewhere in the solar system.
Cassini, an international project that cost US$3.9bil (RM16.3bil) and included scientists from 27 nations, disintegrated as it dove into Saturn’s atmosphere at a speed of 120,700kph.
Cassini’s final contact with Earth came at 1155 GMT (7.55am Malaysian time yesterday). Its descent into Saturn’s atmosphere began 83 minutes earlier, some 1.4 billion kilometres from Earth.
“The spacecraft is gone,” said Cassini programme manager Earl Maize of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
“Thanks and farewell, faithful explorer. But the legacy of Cassini has just begun,” he told a press conference afterward.
“The effect Cassini has – and will have – on the future of planetary exploration will go on for decades.”
Cassini’s plunge into the ringed gas giant – the farthest planet visible from Earth with the naked eye – came after the spacecraft ran out of rocket fuel after a journey of some 7.9 billion kilometres.
Its well-planned demise was designed to prevent any damage to Saturn’s ocean-bearing moons Titan and Enceladus, which scientists want to keep pristine for future exploration because they may contain some form of life.
“There are international treaties that require that we can’t just leave a derelict spacecraft in orbit around a planet like Saturn, which has prebiotic moons,” said Maize.
“Prebiotic” refers to the conditions or ingredients that can occur before life emerges. Three other spacecraft have flown by Saturn – Pioneer 11 in 1979, followed by Voyager 1 and 2 in the 1980s.
But none has studied Saturn in such detail as Cassini, named after the French-Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered in the 17th century that Saturn had several moons and a gap between its rings.
“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for Nasa’s Science Mission Directorate.
“Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”
Nasa is currently considering proposals for the next mission to Saturn and expects to make an announcement about the finalists later this year.