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Cassini mission comes to a fiery end

16 September 2017, 01:01 | Terri Saunders

The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini (e-Book)

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Quite possibly, small moonlets are splashing the ring particles about and forcing them upwards as the moonlets pass by. The storms can disrupt the planet's climate for years to come.

"The signal from the spacecraft is gone and within the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft", program manager Earl Maize reported from mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, just after 4:55 a.m. local time. On the tiny white dot peering through the rings (pictured below), the entire mission team sat waiting to hear that their spacecraft successfully completed its mission-ending dive.

In a fitting end to the tough spacecraft, which outlasted its projected mission lifespan by over nine years, Cassini kept sending science data back to Earth a full 30 seconds longer than expected.

The spacecraft was the first human probe to orbit Saturn, and it did so for 13 years after Cassini slipped into the planet's orbit in 2004. The hitchhiking European Huygens landed on big moon Titan in 2005. Cassini remained in orbit around Saturn, the only spacecraft to ever circle the planet.

The spacecraft's grand finale, its death plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, occurred according to NASA's carefully plotted plan at 3:31 a.m. Communication was lost about one minute later. NASA's findings have shown that Saturn's moon Enceladus could have or had a habitable environment.

SPACECRAFT: Traveling too far from the sun to reap its energy, Cassini used plutonium for electrical power to feed its science instruments.

"We're trying to find out exactly what is coming from the rings and what is due to the atmosphere", Hunter Waite, Cassini team lead for the mass spectrometer instrument and an atmospheric scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said at the September 13 news conference. Twenty-two times, Cassini entered the gap and came out again.

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"It's a bittersweet, but fond, farewell to a mission that leaves behind an incredible wealth of discoveries that have changed our view of Saturn and our Solar System, and will continue to shape future missions and research", said Michael Watkins, director of JPL, which built and managed the Cassini mission. Scientists wanted one last look to see if Peggy had broken free of its ring. Saturn's atmosphere will be measured by the onboard mass spectrometer in real time for as long as the spacecraft survives.

As Cassini's mission ends, summer has arrived at Saturn's north. Or perhaps multiple such collisions occurred.

The probe beamed its final photos of Saturn to Earth on Thursday.

Image gallery captured by Cassini during its space journey.

Looking back, Professor Zarnecki said: "It's been an fantastic 20 years". The spacecraft got out of control while dropping at the speed of more than 76,000 miles per hour.

Those observations revealed details about the cycle of methane, which on Titan takes the role of water on Earth-forming clouds, raining down, and forming lakes, as well as freezing into ice.

Planetary scientist Kevin Hand at JPL, who is leading the science definition team for the proposed Europa lander, feels a debt to Cassini. Linda Spilker, a scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab who helped launch Cassini 20 years ago, told the Washington Post she's proposed a plan to explore Saturn's moon Enceladus for signs of life. Nothing is firmly on the books right now.

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