Cassini mission ends with final plunge into Saturn
- Author: Megan Austin Sep 16, 2017,
Sep 16, 2017, 1:05
"It felt so much like losing a friend", she told reporters a couple of hours later.
More than 1,500 people, including past and present team members, jammed Southern California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology for an emotional goodbye that came from millions of miles away.
Even though the end of a research project like Cassini is ceasing, astronomers have more deep-space projects up their sleeves.
While a lot of questions were answered because of the spacecraft, scientists were left with many inquiries about Saturn. Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but weren't hopeful it would be spotted against the vast backdrop of the solar system's second largest planet.
When all was said and done, the spacecraft lasted about 30 seconds longer than expected.
Among those watching the end of Cassini on Friday at LASP was Alain Jouchoux, the operations team leader on the UVIS instrument, who wrote its flight code and said he has been involved in the program since about 1993. Once the spacecraft ran out of fuel, NASA would not risk letting it remain aloft, where it might be knocked into Titan or Enceladus. Turning so that its ion neutral mass spectrometer was facing directly towards Saturn, Cassini could taste the atmosphere for the first time and investigate a phenomenon called "ring rain", in which water and ice from the rings splash into the atmosphere. Last week was the last time, it came out of the gap. En route, it has made multiple close approaches to the planet itself, travelling within the innermost of its rings, and sending back detailed images of the atmosphere.
It burned through 183 main engines but was able to collect more than 453,000 images and travel 4.9 billion miles. It was an worldwide endeavor, with 27 nations taking part. It finally arrived at Saturn in 2004 and NASA extended its mission twice - first for 2 years, and then again for 7 more.
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Asked about the progress of the Americans here, Vandeweghe said: "I watched the match last night with Venus and she said it best. The No. 1 seed is back into the quarters in Flushing Meadows for the first time since 2013, when he won his second of two U.S.
European space officials joined their USA colleagues to bid Cassini farewell.
After a 20-year flight, Cassini was running out of fuel, so NASA chose to crash Cassini before letting it remain aloft, where it could have been knocked into Titan, the moon with methane lakes, or Enceladus, the moon with jets of water in its southern pole.
But two of Saturn's moons, ice-covered Enceladus and smog-covered Titan, are high on NASA's list for future exploration due to their potential for undersea life and prebiotic chemistry.
There were some lighthearted touches during the morning. This week, the spacecraft passed Titan one last time and used its gravitational pull to set the course toward Saturn. Parties were planned for the teams throughout the weekend, complete with Champagne.
However, there's another reason for ending the mission in such a spectacular fashion: "We have the opportunity to do some really cool science", Bittner says. Proposals are under consideration by NASA, but there's nothing official yet. Those missions may pave the way for a lander on Europa (SN Online: 2/18/17), which could directly look for life in that moon's subsurface seas.
NASA's science mission director, Thomas Zurbuchen, made note of all the tissues Friday morning inside JPL's Mission Control, along with the customary lucky peanuts.