Fiery farewell to Saturn probe that sent back a trea­sure trove of de­tail

The Herald - - FRONT PAGE -

JOHN VON RAD­OW­ITZ

A Nasa artist’s im­pres­sion of the Saturn probe Cassini burn­ing up as

showed Ti­tan to have a star­tlingly Earth-like land­scape, with rivers, lakes and seas filled with liq­uid meth­ane and eth­ane.

Sci­en­tists be­lieve Ti­tan’s “pre-bi­otic” en­vi­ron­ment could also sup­port life, but not nec­es­sar­ily as we know it.

Cassini has also dis­cov­ered seven new moons, six of which have been named, ob­served rag­ing storms on Saturn, and shed new light on the planet’s fa­mous rings.

The space­craft’s fate was sealed on Septem­ber 11 when it was sent on a fi­nal fly-by of dis­tant Ti­tan, 760,000 miles from Saturn.

Ti­tan’s grav­ity nudged it onto a course back to Saturn from which there would be no re­turn. Sci­en­tists nick­named it the “good­bye kiss”. Right up un­til it ra­dio

it en­ters Saturn’s at­mos­phere af­ter a suc­cess­ful 20-year mis­sion.

con­tact was lost Cassini was send­ing back data to Earth in near-real time.

The last images of loom­ing Saturn were cap­tured by the probe sev­eral hours ear­lier as it headed towards the planet.

For a brief time Cassini’s in­stru­ments sam­pled gases and mol­e­cules from Saturn’s at­mos­phere, trans­mit­ting data that could not be ob­tained by re­mote sens­ing alone.

Buf­feted by strong winds, the probe fired its at­ti­tude thrusters to main­tain sta­bil­ity. Cassini strug­gled on for about a minute but when its dish an­tenna failed to lock onto Earth, ra­dio con­tact was lost.

Be­cause of the length of time it takes ra­dio waves to cross the gulf be­tween Saturn and Earth, mis­sion con­trollers only con­firmed sig­nal loss 83 min­utes later.

Tears at the end of the Cassini mis­sion in the con­trol room.

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