Cassini will sacrifice itself to protect Saturn's potentially habitable moons

Diagram of Cassini’s final week showing some of the milestones as the spacecraft heads for its plunge into Saturn. Credit NASA  JPL-Caltech

No spacecraft has ever ventured so close to the planet before. Navigators will also be analyzing this information in the hopes of confirming that Cassini is precisely on track and ready to plunge into Saturn at the designated time, location, and altitude.

Both of them have ended up studying Titan and the data Cassini has been able to collect on the moon. "Almost like we've taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings".

On Monday, the craft made a flyby of Titan that slowed it down enough to direct it toward Saturn rather than through the furthest reaches of its atmosphere, as it has been doing.

This will likely happen around 6:30 a.m.

Cassini's team is reconfiguring the spacecraft to send back scientific data in "near real time".

"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager.

The fourth space probe to visit the solar system's second-largest planet (preceded by Voyager 1, Voyager 2 and Pioneer 11), Cassini is the first to orbit the gaseous giant.

Along its way, Cassini (and its Titan-bound companion, the atmospheric entry probe Huygens) captured hundreds of thousands of images and taught us more about Saturn, its rings and many moons. The mission's end is a loss for an entire scientific community. There are fascinating images of geysers shooting from Enceladus's south pole, handsome images of Saturn's rings (including one with Saturn's shadow falling on them), and a zoomed-in view of Epimetheus (another of Saturn's moons). NASA did not want to risk Cassini crashing into any of Saturn's moons and potentially contaminating them with microbes from Earth.

Cassini will sacrifice itself to protect Saturn's potentially habitable moons
Cassini will sacrifice itself to protect Saturn's potentially habitable moons

JPL Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker compared Cassini's grand finale to "a last look around your house or apartment just before you move out", when "memories across the years come flooding back". The final dive on Friday is a dramatic conclusion to this unique, long and scientifically valuable goodbye. "That led us, inevitably, to the plan of taking Cassini and plunging it into Saturn".

It is known as the Cassini-Huygens mission because it delivered ESA's Huygens probe to Titan - the "first descent and landing on a world in the outer solar system", according to NASA. Maize said that moment is his pick for the most unbelievable part of the Cassini mission. Why is the program ending now after 13 years?

Cassini gathered data on Saturn's famous rings and found they are made up of odd-sized clumps of particles - some as small as grains of sand, others that are miles long. Of Cassini's 162 targeted flybys of Saturn's 53 named and nine unnamed moons, 127 were of Titan.

The aging spacecraft, which launched from Earth in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004, was only supposed to monitor the ringed planet for four years.

For the past five months, Cassini has completed a series of "daring dives" between the planet and its rings. "It's one of the things we expected to learn, but have not".

"Huygens discovered an active hydrologic cycle on Titan, but one in which the rain, rivers and lakes are composed of liquid methane and ethane", said Hammergren. The lessons learned from the last 13 years will carry forward to the Europa Clipper, a planned mission to Jupiter's icy moon in the 2020s.

"This mission is special, and it's making it more hard to say goodbye because it's lasted so long", said Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science Director Jonathan Lunine.

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