The U.S. space agency NASA received a final signal from its Cassini spacecraft on Friday as it ended a groundbreaking, 13-year Saturn mission with a meteor-like plunge into the ringed planet's atmosphere.
Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists led the development of two scientific sensors on NASA's spacecraft Cassini that provided key measurements of the space environment around Saturn after its launch in 1997, arrival in 2004 and continuing mission that ends today, when it will burn up in the Saturn atmosphere. But it was impossible to resist the lure of the data they could get from Cassini's Grand Finale - the series of dives between Saturn and its rings.
SPACE scientists at Aberystwyth University are following the progress of the Cassini spacecraft as it nears the end of its 20-year mission to Saturn.
The probe's death dive was actually carried out at roughly 6:31 a.m. EDT, but the delay and distance between Saturn and Earth caused NASA to continue receiving the probe's final radio signals for another 83 minutes after.
Saturn, May 2007. The planet is adorned by seven rings, which rotate at different speeds.
Cassini Spacecraft Makes Its Final Approach to Saturn
Still, "this mission has been going for so long, it's a little hard to believe that it's over", he says. All pictures must be downlinked and the cameras switched off before the death plunge can begin.
"The end of Cassini's mission will be a poignant moment, but a fitting and very necessary completion of an astonishing journey", Maize said. The orbiter was programmed to crash into Saturn to ensure the protection of its potentially habitable moons and avoid biological contamination, keeping them pristine for future exploratory missions.
To feed the science instruments, Cassini used the plutonium for providing the electrical power as the mission ran away from the sun.
With Cassini running on empty and no gas station for about a billion miles, NASA chose to go out Thelma & Louise-style.
Cassini wasn't the first NASA probe to study Saturn close-up.
On its Facebook page, Nasa said: "Cassini is now part of the planet it studied for more than a decade".
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Contact was lost with the Cassini spacecraft a minute after it reached an altitude of about 1,500 kilometres above the planets estimated cloud tops. The Huygens lander separated from Cassini and plopped down on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan shortly after the arrival. That way, Cassini could collect detailed data about the atmosphere and then send it back to researchers as quickly as possible. At first Cassini scientists thought this might be due to an unseen ocean, but instead discovered something even stranger: Mimas had a football-shaped core. "This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft and you are all an incredible team". "Saturn was so compelling, so exciting, and the mission we finally came up with was so rich scientifically that we just couldn't - we had to finish up at Saturn, not some place else". Goal since it was of major scientific discoveries on our understanding of Saturn as the solar system, and since it was still in great shape, it has been extended to nine years.
During its final five orbits, its orbit passes through Saturn's uppermost atmosphere, before finally plunging directly into the planet on September 15.
One of Cassini's most important discoveries was the existence of a massive watery ocean under the icy surface of Enceladus that could conceivably harbour life. All the while, it was collecting its last bits of data regarding Saturn's atmosphere.
For a closer look at the Cassini mission read my other articles on Cassini's observations of numerous known moons of Saturn as well as the space probe's new discoveries, Cassini's search for the building blocks of life on Titan, and the beauty and mystery of Saturn's rings as revealed by Cassini.
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