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Cassini Spacecraft Makes Its Final Approach to Saturn

14 September 2017

The 22ft robot craft will break into fragments and burn up as it ploughs into the ringed planet's cloud tops, ending a 20-year mission that cost £2.9 billion.

Still, "this mission has been going for so long, it's a little hard to believe that it's over", he says.

Because of the finite speed of light and the 1.4 billion km distance to Saturn, the event in space will actually have occurred 83 minutes earlier.

"It will fight, it will fight and it will fight", said Earl Maize, Cassini's project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. During its final minutes, the spacecraft will send data back to Earth in real-time eking out as much precious data from the mission as it possibly can - for who knows when humanity will have an opportunity like this again?

When was Cassini launched and how long did it take to reach Saturn?

In its time Cassini made 22 daring orbits that allowed the probe to slip between Saturn and its rings.

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All pictures must be downlinked and the cameras switched off before the death plunge can begin.

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.

When Cassini arrived at Saturn, where one "year" lasts 29.5 Earth years, the gas giant went through northern winter, and Cassini was there to witness the planet's change of seasons.

As it was with the probe's previous Grand Finale flybys, seven of Cassini's instruments, including its ion and neutral mass spectrometer, will be activated during its final trip into Saturn's clouds.

Scientists are instead more concerned about the final data Cassini can gather in its final moments of actual scientific value.

"This mission is special, and it's making it more hard to say goodbye because it's lasted so long", said Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science Director Jonathan Lunine.

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It was the first successful landing on a world in the outer solar system. "That's where water, because the Sun hardly shines there, should be frozen solid - and you have to have liquid water to be able to have life". He's been studying Saturn for almost 40 years. "That blew our minds".

Saturn carried out exactly 127 precisely targeted encounters with Titan, either close or more distant ones, and some hundreds of other passes over it as well.

The European lander provided the high point of the mission when it successfully touched down on the surface of Titan in January 2005.

And the spacecraft itself, as well as its instruments, are informing future missions that NASA has planned, like NASA's Europa Clipper mission to explore Jupiter's icy moon, launching in the 2020s. Subsequent research by the Cassini team indicated the oxygen atoms were coming from a salty, subterranean ocean on Enceladus, which scientists think may have conditions favorable for primitive life.

"CSIRO has over 50 years of collaboration with NASA, and designing, building and operating major research facilities like CDSCC and ASKAP, and transitioning space technologies to many SMEs", Dr Marshall said.

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Cassini Spacecraft Makes Its Final Approach to Saturn