Tuesday, 17 October, 2017

Cassini preparing for final dive into Saturn's atmosphere

US Spacecraft Cassini Readies for Fiery Plunge Into Saturn After 13-Year Mission Cassini Took Its Last Flyby Before Its Death Plunge On Friday
Carlton Santiago | 15 September, 2017, 00:37

Professor Simon Green, from The Open University, who helped develop Huygens's surface science package, said: "The Cassini-Huygens mission has transformed our understanding of the second largest planet in our solar system, Saturn, with its vast ring system and its unique moons".

Cassini flew by Titan one last time on Tuesday before transmitting images and scientific data from the flight. It unveiled moonlets embedded in the rings. "We are going to learn even more over the next day or so".

Hosts will cover the ins and outs of the final moments live from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, where the mission is headquartered.

It will also investigate the "ring rain" phenomenon discovered by NASA's Voyager mission in the early 1980s, where it appeared that the rings were raining down material on the planet and causing changes in the atmosphere.

According to NASA, when Cassini hits the atmosphere at about local noon 10 degrees north of the Saturnian equator, it will be traveling at about 70,000 miles per hour (113,000 km/h) and accelerating. About two minutes later, Cassini will burn and disintegrate completely - any traces of it will melt due to the heat and high pressure of the giant planet's hostile atmosphere.

TIMELINE: Cassini rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on October 15, 1997, carrying with it the European Huygens lander.

Cassini has been exploring Saturn since 2004 when it arrived at the ringed planet.

The Cassini spacecraft is a victim of its own success.

An image of Saturn taken from the Cassini spacecraft.

Since April, the craft has been making a series of dives between the planet and its rings in what NASA has dubbed The Grand Finale. Better that, they figured, than Cassini accidentally colliding with a moon that might harbor life and contaminating it. Then, the temperatures will overcome the iridium-casing for its plutonium power supply, creating a flare just before the last evidence of Cassini is erased.

One might also wonder why NASA is throwing its $2 billion spacecraft into a "death dive" instead of trying to land it or recover it. "You can think of Cassini as becoming the first Saturn probe".

Saturn is on average 890 million miles from Earth, and it takes around 83 minutes for radio waves to cross that distance at the speed of light. The resulting information has contributed to almost 4,000 published scientific papers and some 5,000 people have worked on the mission over the years, according to NASA. During its long mission, Cassini has been able to provide some mind blowing and unknown details about Saturn, its rings and its 60 odd moons. Even though scientists and engineers scrub each spacecraft before it leaves Earth, there's always a chance that some microbes are still stuck on its surface.

With Cassini running out of fuel, therefore being out of our control, they want to avoid the remote possibility of a collision with the moons Titan or Enceladus, which could both conceivably host life. Incredibly, geysers of water vapor and ice shoot out of cracks in Enceladus' south pole.

"We will then reconfigure Cassini for its final transmissions", Maize said. (Except maybe whoever is tweeting on the orbiter's behalf.) Cassini's true value was as a science machine, and an exceptionally good one at that. Such contamination could harm or create potential life.

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