Cassini burns up in skies above Saturn

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - KICKOFF - By Mar­cia Dunn

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLA. » NASA’s Cassini space­craft dis­in­te­grated in the skies above Saturn on Fri­day in a fi­nal, fate­ful blaze of cos­mic glory, fol­low­ing a re­mark­able jour­ney of 20 years.

Con­fir­ma­tion of Cassini’s ex­pected demise came about 7:55 a.m. EDT. That’s when ra­dio sig­nals from the space­craft — its last sci­en­tific gifts to Earth — came to an abrupt halt. The ra­dio waves went flat, and the space­craft fell silent.

Cassini ac­tu­ally burned up like a me­teor 83 min­utes ear­lier as it dove through Saturn’s at­mos­phere, be­com­ing one with the gi­ant gas planet it set out in 1997 to ex­plore. But it took that long for the news to reach Earth a bil­lion miles away.

The only space­craft to ever or­bit Saturn, Cassini showed us the planet, its rings and moons up close in all their splen­dor. Per­haps most tan­ta­liz­ing, ocean worlds were un­veiled on the moons Ence­ladus and Ti­tan, which could pos­si­bly har­bor life.

Du­ti­ful to the end, the Cassini snapped its last photos Thurs­day and sam­pled Saturn’s at­mos­phere Fri­day morn­ing as it made its fi­nal plunge. It was over in a minute or two.

Pro­gram man­ager Earl Maize made the of­fi­cial pro­nounce­ment:

“This has been an in­cred­i­ble mis­sion, an in­cred­i­ble space­craft and you’re all an in­cred­i­ble team,” Maize said. “I’m go­ing to call this the end of mis­sion.”

Flight con­trollers wear­ing match­ing pur­ple shirts stood and em­braced and shook hands. Project sci­en­tist Linda Spilker also had a pur­ple hand­ker­chief to wipe away tears.

“It felt so much like los­ing a friend,” she told re­porters a cou­ple of hours later.

More than 1,500 peo­ple, many of them past and present team mem­bers, had gath­ered at Cal­i­for­nia’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory for what was de­scribed as both a vigil and cel­e­bra­tion. Even more con­gre­gated at nearby Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Technology, which runs the lab for NASA.

The space­craft tum­bled out of con­trol while plum­met­ing at more than 76,000 mph (122,000 kph). Project of­fi­cials in­vited ground tele­scopes to look for Cassini’s last-gasp flash, but weren’t hope­ful it would be spot­ted against the vast back­drop of the so­lar sys­tem’s se­cond largest planet. The ra­dio link ac­tu­ally held on a half-minute longer than ex­pected.

“There are times in this world when things just line up, when ev­ery­thing is just about per­fect. A child’s laugh, a desert sun­set and this morn­ing. It just couldn’t have been bet­ter,” said Maize. “Farewell, faith­ful ex­plorer.”

This Grand Finale, as NASA called it, came about as Cassini’s fuel tank started get­ting low af­ter 13 years ex­plor­ing the planet. Sci­en­tists wanted to pre­vent Cassini from crash­ing into Ence­ladus or Ti­tan — and con­tam­i­nat­ing those pris­tine worlds. And so in April, Cassini was di­rected into the pre­vi­ously un­ex­plored gap be­tween Saturn’s cloud tops and the rings. Twenty-two times, Cassini en­tered the gap and came out again. The last time was last week.

Cassini de­parted Earth in 1997 and ar­rived at the sixth planet from our sun in 2004. The hitch­hik­ing Euro­pean Huy­gens landed on big moon Ti­tan in 2005. Noth­ing from Earth has landed far­ther. Three other space­craft pre­vi­ously flew past Saturn, but Cassini was the only one to ac­tu­ally cir­cle the planet.

JAE C. HONG — ASSOCIATED PRESS

En­gi­neer Nancy Van­der­may, left, wipes tears on Fri­day at NASA’s Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Calif., af­ter the con­fir­ma­tion of Cassini’s demise.

NASA/AP FILE

The newly as­sem­bled Cassini Saturn probe un­der­goes vi­bra­tion and ther­mal test­ing in Oc­to­ber 1996 at the Jet Propul­sion Lab­o­ra­tory in Pasadena, Calif.

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