Published: Fri, September 15, 2017
Research | By Raquel Erickson

Cassini spacecraft makes final approach to Saturn

Cassini spacecraft makes final approach to Saturn

So when NASA finally put the thing in a death spiral around Saturn in April, you'd think that the mission's scientists would have breathed a sigh of relief.

Although Cassini has on five previous occasions sniffed Saturn's upper atmosphere, in its final moments it will go much closer inside than before.

When it launched, Cassini-Huygens was the biggest, most complex interplanetary spacecraft ever flown.

The spacecraft has completed many moon flybys while observing seasonal changes on Saturn and Titan.

The $US3.26 billion ($A4.06 billion) mission has given scientists vital information about two of Saturn's moons, Titan and Enceladus, as well as the planet itself and its icy rings. To prevent the spacecraft from accidentally crash landing on one of Saturn's moons, potentially contaminating it with microbes from Earth hitching a ride aboard the spacecraft, NASA made a decision to end the mission by having it burn up while entering the planet's atmosphere.

The probe is running low on the fuel it uses for course corrections and may soon be impossible to control.

Cassini has been beaming historic photos and data almost 1.6 billion kilometres back to Earth and a team of Australian scientists have been at the forefront of the mission. But outside those two communities, what will serve as the tangible reminders of the mission?

The Cassini spacecraft is a victim of its own success. "We usually end our missions in a way that doesn't give us a lot of extra science", says Curt Neiber, Cassini's program scientist. On the way it made fly-bys of Venus, the Earth, and Jupiter to receive gravitational "kicks" that boosted its speed to more than 42,500mph.

"Liquid water brings the possibility of life", said Hammergren.

In 2004, Cassini became a "Cool Kids Combo" meal toy offered by Hardee's and Carl's Jr. fast food restaurants.

Why was Cassini's mission significant?

The Cassini mission did result in several dedicated books, including a Haynes' Owners' Workshop Manual penned by Ralph Lorenz, a member of the Cassini radar team. Cassini has provided some impossibly great photos of Saturn and its moons over the past decade, and it's gone above and beyond what was originally planned for it.

In addition, Cassini carried a smaller European Space Agency probe, Huygens, created to land on Titan.

NASA TV is devoting its entire schedule to Cassini today, but it's hard to summarize all the discoveries that have come out of having a constant presence at Saturn for over 13 years.

Within a year of arriving at Saturn, Cassini captured images of plumes of water vapor jetting out from near the moon's south pole. "What would it look like if I could hold a ring particle in my hand?" It also revealed that the rings of Saturn are not always stormy or full of dust. "It would be interesting to do a survey on Cassini's impact on the arts", said Lakdawalla. Cassini was officially assigned a four years prime mission, but it was extended twice and resulted in an astonishing 13 years long mission highlighting the enormous capacity of the space craft.

If you're a Cassini fan-and the mission has picked up quite a few, including adorable six-year-olds-that's always going to be little sad. "And we have been profoundly successful".

First there was the sheer distance involved. "When we started I was kind of the tutor and he the tutoree", Larry said. "We were able to see Saturn from many different points of view".

That data could help understand how the planet formed and evolved.

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