NASA looks ahead to future Saturn missions as Cassini nears its end

by Sherry Padilla September 15, 2017, 0:26
NASA looks ahead to future Saturn missions as Cassini nears its end

If Cassini has done such a great job, why has NASA made a decision to crash the spacecraft into Saturn?

The moment will mark the end of an eight billion kilometer journey that began at Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1997 and took Cassini around Venus and Jupiter en route to its destination.

Planetary Society board member Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager) sings a very special goodbye to the Cassini mission at Saturn.

For its swan song, the spacecraft will gather data on Saturn's clouds as it hurtles towards them at 112,000 km/h. Cassini has also accomplished its mission many times over, since it arrived at Saturn in 2004. When they can no longer hold the spacecraft steady, it will start to tumble, communication will be lost, and the probe will burn to a cinder. During its final minutes, the spacecraft will send data back to Earth in real-time eking out as much precious data from the mission as it possibly can - for who knows when humanity will have an opportunity like this again?

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Its mission extended twice, Cassini's findings transformed scientists' understanding of Saturn, its rings and its moons.

Originally, the Cassini mission was only a four-year tour, which was completed in 2008, but resulted in two extensions.

"I think because it has been in the Saturn system for 13 years and it has just made discoveries and the ability for us to communicate those discoveries has exploded around it, that is now enabling us to draw attention and recognize that we really could have done a better job explaining how it got to where it is", said Green. Stunning pictures captured Saturn's weather, a once-in-30-years storm that engulfed the globe, and the changing of its seasons. There are so many puzzles at Saturn. It was the first ever touchdown on an alien world beyond the asteroid belt. A smaller probe, Huygens, also landed on the surface of Titan. Hydrocarbon rivers carve canyons on the ground and feed three hydrocarbon seas and hundreds of lakes.

The Royal Mail (UK) issued in 2012 a postage stamp that featured a Cassini image of Saturn and its rings.

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The reason NASA is destroying Cassini is because of the spacecraft's most astonishing discovery.

Mission categories under New Frontiers include the exploration of Enceladus, Titan or Saturn's ocean worlds.

The final plunge into Saturn's atmosphere shall occur on the day side of Saturn at local noon time. Any tiny fragments that survive the inferno will sink, melt, and ultimately become diluted in the planet's interior. Going through the remaining data will take months and years of study, and the future missions Cassini will nearly inevitably inspire-to Titan, to Enceladus, or to other, undiscovered ocean worlds-will keep the orbiter's work relevant for decades to come.

Regardless of whether they expected it, the two have worked together, and published scientific research papers together. In recent weeks, Cassini has beamed back information on Saturn's enigmatic rings that could answer fundamental questions about their make-up. "Right now we are on track for making "three-ish" teams very, very happy just in time for Christmas", said Curt Niebur of NASA Headquarters at a September 6 meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group, discussing the ongoing evaluation of New Frontiers proposals. "I have seen a lot of visual artists take images from Saturn, primarily the rings, and use those as motifs, backgrounds or design elements in their art". There are some huge gaps in the rings where the atmosphere is silent and less dusty.

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Spilker is part of a NASA team that proposes to go back to Enceladus to look for signs of life. Instead, Cassini will be configured to run only those instruments that can sense the planet's near-space environment, such as its magnetic field, or that can sample the chemical composition of its gases. "Does the ocean of Enceladus have evidence of life?"

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