Cassini com­mits Saturn ‘sui­cide’

Space­craft dis­in­te­grates in at­mos­phere af­ter 20-year mis­sion

The Star Malaysia - - World -

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Malaysia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.