Cassini Grand Finale: Father & Son Researchers Say Goodbye To Spacecraft Together

"It's going to do that for as long as it possibly can".

"Its true legacy is how NASA responds to the observations it made and then make decisions on how to utilize those in another series of missions", stated Green.

First there was the sheer distance involved.

"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo". The mission, which launched in 1997 to study Saturn and its moons, was supposed to end in 2008. Others across the globe will be working in support.

The UVIS has already fostered "scores of dazzling discoveries" - including a salty, subterranean ocean on one of Saturn's moons which scientists think may have conditions favorable for primitive life. Cassini made a close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan on Monday, a pass that slightly shifted the spacecraft's trajectory and sent it on a path leading into Saturn's atmosphere.

All pictures must be downlinked and the cameras switched off before the death plunge can begin. It has sent over 400,000 images back home.

During the dive there is also a concern that Cassini might impact with ring material - space stuff the size of a grain-of-sand that could damage an instrument or the entire spacecraft.

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. It arrived six years later, having navigated the unsafe asteroid-belt that lies between us and Saturn, but with only basic instrumentation on board it wasn't able to gather much scientific data.

Back here on Earth, those last whispers of data will be captured in "real-time" by the giant antenna "ears" of the CSIRO-operated Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC).

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"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.

"We won't watch it burn up", said Maize.

Mission controllers wouldn't be able to respond to that putative signal in any meaningful way even if they wanted to; Cassini will die almost an hour and a half before such a signal reaches our planet. "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. That blew our minds".

But they haven't. "As much as I want to have a rational reaction", says Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, "it's still really hard to say 'This is it for Cassini, ' that we won't be getting any more data from it after Friday, ever".

The important discoveries of Saturn include the global ocean indicating hydrothermal activity inside Enceladus which hinted scientists that it could sustain life.

In the near term, though, numerous same researchers will be working on America's Clipper mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter that in many ways is just a big version of Enceladus.

Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini discovered four of Saturn moons in the 17th century, although scientists have since identified more than 60.

Intrigued by Cassini's discoveries, scientists have submitted concepts for future "spacecraft to drift on the methane seas of Titan and fly through the Enceladus plume to collect and analyze samples for signs of biology" that are now under consideration, according to NASA.

  • Regina Walsh