Nasa’s Cassini sends its fi­nal pic­tures be­fore rapid plunge

The Courier & Advertiser (Angus and The Mearns Edition) - - NEWS -

It was not a clean or swift death.

For Cassini, the “long walk” to the mo­ment of ex­e­cu­tion be­gan on Septem­ber 11 with a fi­nal fly-by of Saturn’s largest moon, Ti­tan.

The dis­tant moon’s grav­ity nudged the space­craft onto a course that sealed its fate as it sped back to the ringed planet, cap­tur­ing a last batch of stun­ning images on the way.

On this tra­jec­tory, Cassini would sail too close to Saturn to sur­vive.

Four days later, just af­ter 9.30am UK time and high above the planet, the probe re­con­fig­ured its sys­tems to be­gin gath­er­ing data and trans­mit­ting it back to Earth in near real-time.

At around 12.53pm, and still more than 1,000 miles above the cloud tops, Cassini be­gan to pen­e­trate Saturn’s thick hy­dro­gen­rich at­mos­phere.

Fir­ing at­ti­tude thrusters to main­tain po­si­tion, the probe sam­pled and an­a­lysed the gases rush­ing past it, pro­vid­ing in­valu­able data that could not have been ob­tained from a nor­mal or­bit.

But this was Cassini’s last gasp. Three sec­onds later, some 930 miles above Saturn’s cloud tops, the buf­fet­ing winds over­came its at­tempts to stay in con­trol and keep its dish an­tenna point­ing ac­cu­rately at Earth.

As soon as the an­tenna swerved away from its tar­get, all con­tact with the mis­sion con­trollers and sci­en­tists on Earth was lost.

In the fol­low­ing sec­onds Cassini’s on-board com­puter would have run through its fault pro­tec­tion pro­ce­dures in a des­per­ate bid to keep the craft in a safe, sta­ble state.

Sci­en­tists can only imag­ine what is likely to have hap­pened next as the craft tum­bled through the at­mos­phere at 77,000mph.

An artist’s im­pres­sion of Cassini turn­ing into a fiery me­teor as it breaks up in Saturn’s at­mos­phere. Pic­ture: PA.

Cassini above Saturn’s north­ern hemi­sphere. Pic­ture: PA.

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