This was Cassini's last image before burning up in Saturn's atmosphere

Share

On arrival it toured the Saturnian moons, making multiple passes of many of them, and building up more detailed maps than ever before.

Cassini was estimated to last about a minute and a half in Saturn's atmosphere before high temperatures ripped apart and melted its components. It looks toward Saturn's night side, lit by reflected light from the rings, and shows the location where the spacecraft would enter the planet's atmosphere hours later.

In its 20-year mission, Cassini certainly meets the bill. These projects launched spacecraft into deep-space, in 1977 and 1989 respectively, to explore the farthest planets in our solar systems. The Huygens probe detached from the Cassini spacecraft in 2005 when it landed on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The beginning of the end officially started in April 2017 when a flyby of Titan altered Cassini's orbit to begin a series of 22 "Grand Finale" dives into the gap between the rings and planet.

Despite 13 years in Saturn's orbit, there are still many unanswered questions. It still had enough left to power its boosters for another few years but NASA mission engineers didn't want to take the risk of an uncontrolled landing on Titan or Enceladus. What a way to go. "Truly a blaze of glory". It took that long for the news to arrive at Earth a billion miles away.

The Cassini-Huygens mission, a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, was launched in October 1997 and reached Saturn's orbit in 2004. The image was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on September 13, 2017. Eating peanuts before a major mission event is tradition at JPL.

That last communication was displayed as a green spike of data on a screen above mission control.

Cassini program manager at JPL, Earl Maize, center row, calls out the end of the mission. For this achievement he received the Society's Gold Medal in 2014, as did RAS Fellow Professor Michele Dougherty, who led the Cassini Magnetometer team following on from Professor David Southwood (also a former president of the RAS, from 2012 to 2014).

Flight controllers wearing matching purple shirts gave Cassini a standing ovation, embraced and shook hands. "The wake we're experiencing right now for Cassini, it's not so much an end but the early steps that pave the way for the next stage of exploration". You can bet future spacecraft will be tasked to visit those fissures. "I hope you're all as deeply proud of this fantastic accomplishment, congratulations to you all, this has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're an incredible team, I am going to call this the end of mission", he added, to applause within the Mission Control room. At about 07:55 EDT (11:55 GMT) the probe dove into the planet's atmosphere, sending back information up until the last moment before eventually burning up in the atmosphere. Cassini has been humankind's proxy-visit to Saturn, a diminutive, polite and empathetic ambassador dispatched to learn more about a tremendous planet orbiting the same star we are, a veritable jewel of our neighbourhood.

As it happens, a number of moons in the solar system look like they have global oceans - Enceladus and Ganymede are two - so Mimas having one wasn't such a wild idea.

Share