Remembering Cassini 1997-2017

Sahaj Shah

After nearly two decades in space, NASA’s spacecraft, Cassini, made a fateful plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, 2017- disintegrating and completing its mission. Cassini, the first human-made satellite to enter Saturn’s orbit, launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and arrived at Saturn in 2004. With a collaboration between NASA, European Space Agency, and Italian Space Energy, the Cassini-Huygens mission was initiated with a goal of studying Saturn’s system and environment, which is ten times farther than Earth from the sun. It is important to remember and recognize the amazing feats that Cassini achieved after 13 years (almost half a year on Saturn) of circling Saturn’s orbit.

 

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Discovery of signs of life in Saturn’s moons

Over the years, Cassini has greatly expanded our understanding of Saturn’s moons, atmosphere, and rings. In 2004, the Huygens module separated from Cassini and made the first successful landing on the surface of Titan. Findings revealed the presence of a global ocean beneath the thick ice sheets covering its surface. And Titan wasn’t the only oddball showing signs of life. Cassini also found a huge geothermal activity- towering jets of water and vapor near the south pole of Enceladus- which scientists had initially assumed was too small to retain heat. The module also showed how most of the moons have oceans concentrated near the poles and deserts that compose the rest of the landscape. Over the time, Cassini was able to closely observe about a dozen out of 53 moons, which gave scientists tons of data.

 

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A zoom in on Enceladus

Revelation of Natural Processes

Cassini has also broadened our understanding of space-time and physical processes. With the close exploration of Saturn’s rings, Cassini enabled scientists to observe how rings form and break apart, as well as their evolution over a period of time. It also showed us the complexity of the arrangement of the rings.

 

Final Moments

Even during its final moments, Cassini fought with maximum thrusters to maintain stability and send data back to Earth. It lasted 30 seconds longer than what the scientists had predicted. “This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen said. Cassini might be gone, but it has left tons of data that scientists are yet to analyze. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime,” Cassini project scientist, Dr. Linda Spiker commented.

After expending almost every last bit of fuel in the spacecraft, the mission was ended so that it wouldn’t interfere with future explorations to Saturn’s moons- particularly ice-covered Enceladus and Titan.

Interested in learning more? You can find more information and pictures at Cassini’s Grand Finale at:

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/grandfinale

Edited by: Karen Yung and Ruby Halfacre