Saturn probe’s sui­cide may solve fi­nal rid­dle

The Daily Telegraph - - World News - By Henry Bod­kin

EVEN as Nasa’s Cassini probe hur­tled to­wards its fi­nal, fiery de­struc­tion in the at­mos­phere above Saturn, con­trollers back on Earth were hop­ing it would re­veal one fi­nal se­cret.

The 20-year mis­sion to in­ves­ti­gate the ringed planet and its moons had been hailed as one of the daz­zling suc­cesses of space ex­plo­ration, yet it had so far failed to solve one of Saturn’s most in­trigu­ing rid­dles: why the north­ern hemi­sphere has a shorter day than the south­ern. Sci­en­tists be­lieve the an­swer lies in the mo­saic of mag­netic fields near the planet’s sur­face.

The only way to pass through them, how­ever, was as part of a sui­cide dive.

Yes­ter­day, as the 22-foot craft buf­feted through Saturn’s up­per layer of clouds, sci­en­tists at Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Cal­i­for­nia, were left pray­ing the ma­chine could keep sta­ble long enough to col­lect and trans­mit the vi­tal data.

Teams will now spend months por­ing over the new in­for­ma­tion, but the early indi­ca­tions look pos­i­tive – the probe was beam­ing back in­for­ma­tion right un­til the end.

“Cassini per­formed ex­actly as she was sup­posed to,” said Pro­fes­sor Jonathan Lu­nine, from Cor­nell Uni­ver­sity, New York, while Lord Rees, the As­tronomer Royal, de­scribed the fi­nal de­scent as the “grand fi­nale of the great­est sci­en­tific and en­gi­neer­ing achieve­ments in space ex­plo­ration.”

Saturn’s out-of-sync hemi­spheres have baf­fled sci­en­tists since Cassini first spot­ted the vari­a­tion when it ar­rived in 2004. While the north­ern hemi­sphere com­pletes a full ro­ta­tion in ap­prox­i­mately 10.6 hours, in the south it takes 10.8 hours.

Dr Daniel Brown, an as­tronomer at Not­ting­ham Trent Uni­ver­sity, said crack­ing this co­nun­drum would yield in­sights into the science of planet for­ma­tion in gen­eral.

Cassini dis­cov­ered seven new moons, ob­served rag­ing storms on Saturn, and shed new light on the planet’s fa­mous rings.

One of the most sig­nif­i­cant find­ings was that of an ocean un­der the icy sur­face of Ence­ladus which may har­bour life.

At al­most every stage, the pro­ject has been sup­ported by Bri­tish sci­en­tists, in­clud­ing Pro­fes­sor John Zar­necki, president of the Royal As­tro­nom­i­cal So­ci­ety, who said: “The mis­sion has not only been a won­der­ful sci­en­tific suc­cess, but has also shown what can be achieved when sci­en­tists and en­gi­neers from across the world can work to­gether with a com­mon pur­pose to re­alise lofty goals.”

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