NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is about to go down in the blaze of glory as it begins its descent through Saturn’s rings in what will be the craft’s last mission. Far from an uncontrolled descent made by a non-responsive asset, Cassini is being guided through its’ final dive as scientists from NASA aim to make the most out of the spacecraft’s final moments. Twenty years after being launched, the Cassini probe is running low on rocket fuel.
Since its’ initial launch in 1997, the craft’s mission has been extended twice, in 2008 and 2010, in order to gather more information about Saturn and its’ moons. Cassini has helped further our understanding of the giant planet’s properties as well as identify its’ rings and moons. This last mission will solidify the probe’s place in NASA’s space hall of fame.
Instead of potentially contaminating one of Saturn’s moons with Earth-borne bacteria that may have survived on the craft, NASA would rather use it as a scientific tool, recording data from the planet’s rings and atmosphere before being burning up. The overall mission, which is set to last twenty-two weeks and begin today, will yield continuous data of the rings, most of which will be a scientific first.
Video credit:NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Over the course of the next twenty-two weeks, Cassini will dive through Saturn’s rings multiple times, and transmit its’ findings to its controllers at NASA. Amongst the data feed will be the make-up of the rings, illuminating us to their potential origins, as well as several photographs, the first taken from within. Once it has completed its’ last run, it is programmed to make a final approach, a collision course with Saturn itself, where it will burn up its’ atmosphere like a comet.
Cassini’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Earl Maize, explained the probe’s final task through a statement:
“The spacecraft is now on a ballistic path, so that even if we were to forgo future small course adjustments using thrusters, we would still enter Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, no matter what.”
Until September 15 however, Cassini will continue to transmit data, some of which will be available on NASA’s website, where it will be updated periodically over the course of the next twenty-two weeks. Additionally, NASA outlines several milestones and achievements to look out for during the spacecraft’s mission. You can follow this history-making event here, or through Cosmic Novo, as we will keep you updated as to any of it’s’ discoveries!