Tears as spacecraft’s 20-year trip ends in 77,000mph ‘suicide’
pass Jupiter. Since 2004 it has been exploring Saturn, the huge ringed planet which is sixth from the Sun.
Cassini was proving so valuable that its life was extended by 10 years, allowing it to discover seven new moons around Saturn.
Most dramatically it revealed that Titan and another moon Enceladus, may be able to host very simple forms of life.
It discovered that Titan and Enceladus have liquid water oceans beneath their icy crusts which could harbour conditions for microbes. It also found dust around Saturn which came from beyond our solar system. But Nasa decided to bring Cassini’s adventure to a close in a fireball because it was running low on fuel and would soon become impossible to steer. They feared it could collide with Titan or Enceladus and contaminate them with bacteria from Earth. On Monday Cassini had a last fly-past of Titan, 760,000 miles from Saturn, whose gravity nudged it back towards its date with destiny in Saturn’s atmosphere – a push nicknamed the “goodbye kiss”.
Then it plunged to its doom, relaying ground-breaking data about Saturn’s upper atmosphere right to the last second. Among the British scientists who have worked on the programme was Royal Astronomical Society president Professor John Zarnecki, who said: “Of course I feel slightly sad.
“But it’s given me the most wonderful ride and it delivered my instrument to the surface of Titan where it’s still sitting.”
Another mission scientist, Professor Andrew Coates, head of the planetary science group at University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, called Cassini “one of humankind’s great voyages of discovery”.