The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has revealed that its Cassini spacecraft will make the first in a series of dives through the 2,400-kilometer gap between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission’s grand finale.
During a press conference held by the US space agency on April 4, researchers explained why they’re killing off their cherished spacecraft with what they call the ” Grand Finale .” The maneuver will use up the fleeting reserves of Cassini’s fuel, putting it on a collision course with Saturn.
“Cassini’s own discoveries were its demise,” said Earl Maize, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who manages the Cassini mission.
Maize was referring to a warm, saltwater ocean that Cassini found hiding beneath the icy crust of Enceladus, a large moon of Saturn that spews water into space. NASA’s probe flew through these curtain-like jets of vapor and ice in October 2015, “tasted” the material, and indirectly discovered the subsurface ocean’s composition – and it’s one that may support alien life.
“We cannot risk an inadvertent contact with that pristine body,” Maize said. “Cassini has got to be put safely away. And since we wanted to stay at Saturn, the only choice was to destroy it in some controlled fashion.”
However, Maize and a collaboration of researchers from 19 nations aren’t going to let their plucky probe go down without a fight. They plan to squeeze every last byte of data they can from the robot, right up until Cassini turns into a brilliant radioactive comet above the swirling storms of Saturn.
Reasons behind NASA’s decision of crashing Cassini:
- The Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004 and the spacecraft is running low on fuel.
- The decision was taken in a bid to protect and preserve the planet’s moons for future exploration — especially the potentially habitable Enceladus.
- The daring finale will help in further understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve.
- Before Cassini perishes, however, it will fly between Saturn and its rings and record as much new data as possible.
How will the final chapter of Cassini spacecraft unfold?
Cassini will transition to its grand finale orbit, with a last close flyby of Saturn’s giant moon Titan, on Saturday, April 22.
On Wednesday, April 26, the spacecraft will make the first in a series of dives through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission’s grand finale.
“This planned conclusion for Cassini’s journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission’s scientists,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.
“Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life.”
The mission team hopes to gain powerful insights into the planet’s internal structure and the origins of the rings, obtain the first-ever sampling of Saturn’s atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings, and capture the closest-ever views of Saturn’s clouds and inner rings.
Some of the accomplishments of USD 3.26 billion Saturn probe by Cassini include a global ocean that showed indications of hydrothermal activity within the icy moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on its moon Titan.