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Cassini, one of humanity’s best spacecraft, is dead at Saturn – A N I T H
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Cassini, one of humanity’s best spacecraft, is dead at Saturn

Cassini, one of humanity’s best spacecraft, is dead at Saturn


Saturn from Cassini.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

No one can ever say that Cassini went quietly into its good night. 

At about 7:55 a.m. ET on Friday, mission controllers on Earth got official word that the Cassini spacecraft — a joint operation of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency — had burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere, vaporizing in about one minute. Cassini is now a part of the world it explored for 13 years.

“We have loss of signal,” the flight director for the mission said, as Cassini’s final dispatch from Saturn ended. 

Its fiery death comes as no surprise. 

Scientists have been planning to send Cassini into Saturn’s atmosphere for some time. Instead of allowing Cassini to spin out of control, possibly impacting a moon that could host life, mission controllers sent it on a collision course with the planet it spent more than a decade gazing upon on humanity’s behalf. 

The Cassini spacecraft launched in 1997 and has been exploring Saturn and its many moons since it arrived at the ringed planet in 2004. 

Cassini followed along as Saturn went through its alien seasons and made plenty of discoveries along the way. The spacecraft is responsible for transforming our understanding of Saturn’s part of the solar system, sending back photos of moons never before seen from close range and finding evidence of an ocean beneath the moon Enceladus’ icy crust. 

In total, Cassini took more than 450,000 photos, orbited Saturn 294 times, and traveled 4.9 billion miles since launch.

And up until the end, Cassini was doing what it does best: Gathering and sending back invaluable data to eager researchers back on the planet that bore it. 

The spacecraft beamed back data to scientists on Earth up until the moment it started to break apart like a meteor in Saturn’s atmosphere. 

One of the craft’s instruments, the ion and neutral mass spectrometer, tasted the planet’s atmosphere during its descent through it, sending its findings back to Earth as one of its last gasps of communication. 

This kind of data could help scientists figure out how Saturn evolved, even though its mission is now over. We’ve never been able to sample Saturn’s atmosphere directly before, so even in its death, Cassini is breaking new ground.

Artist's illustration of Cassini at Saturn.

Artist’s illustration of Cassini at Saturn.

And perhaps that’s the best way to honor Cassini now that it’s gone. 

The spacecraft has contributed so much to our knowledge of the solar system, and its data will be used for decades to come. Scientists will continue to pour over the bits and pieces of the information Cassini gathered while at Saturn to come up with new theories, validate ideas, and bolster previous work. 

Yet aside from one mission to Europa planned in the coming years, NASA has no missions on the books back to Saturn or other planets in the outer solar system. Our close-range eye on that part of our cosmic backyard is now closed. 

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Anith Gopal
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