Cassini Spacecraft Makes Its Final Approach to Saturn

14 September, 2017, 01:53 | Author: Patsy Dennis
  • This illustration by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory highlights some numbers in the final journey Cassini will take this week as it prepares to crash into Saturn on Friday

For the next couple of days, as Saturn looms ever larger, Cassini expects to take a last look around the Saturn system, snapping a few final images of the planet, features in its rings, and the moons Enceladus and Titan.

For a brief one or two minutes before burning up, the spacecraft will sample Saturn's ammonia-rich clouds and beam back new data about their chemical composition.

And Cassini's final jump into the rings of Saturn is being celebrated by the worldwide space organisation.

The UVIS instrument will be turned on during Cassini's final dive into Saturn's atmosphere and will be routing data to Earth until the mission is over, said Esposito, one of many mission scientists who are gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, for Cassini's grand finale.

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This Friday evening (15 September) at about 9:54pm AEST, CSIRO's team at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex will capture the final signals from NASA's Cassini spacecraft as it plunges into Saturn's atmosphere at over 111,000 kph.

This will likely happen around 6:30 a.m. Its fuel exhausted, its missions to explore Saturn and its moons triumphantly fulfilled, the two-and-a-half-ton vehicle will burn up as it falls into the red planet's atmosphere.

A backlit photo of Saturn and its moons taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

Cassini's crash into Saturn will also protect moons like Titan and Enceladus, which researchers think could possess environments fit to host life. "This final encounter is something of a bittersweet goodbye, but as it has done throughout the mission, Titan's gravity is once again sending Cassini where we need it to go", states Earl Maize.

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It is known as the Cassini-Huygens mission because it delivered ESA's Huygens probe to Titan - the "first descent and landing on a world in the outer solar system", according to NASA.

In November 2016, Cassini began a series of maneuvers that sent it hurtling through Saturn's rings. When Cassini arrived, the northern hemisphere of Saturn was emerging from winter.

There's little chance telescopes will see the 20-year, $3.26-billion mission come to an end. Cassini has been able to achieve what it set out to do, it has transmitted stunning pictures and videos of Saturn, tonnes of scientific data, discovered moons, discovered geysers spewing from Saturn's satellite Enceladus and also landed a probe on Saturn's moon Titan. Cassini has collected 450,000 images using a visible light camera. JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

But this meteor isn't a rock: It's NASA's nuclear-powered Cassini spacecraft plunging to its doom.

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