NASA scientists received their final message from their Cassini spacecraft that plunged early Friday into Saturn. The final pieces of data signal an end to one of the most successful missions in planetary science in history.
The signal from Cassini is gone and within 45 seconds the spacecraft will be as well, said Earl Maize the program manager at mission control at 4:55 a.m. on Friday morning. He added that the mission had been incredible as was the spacecraft and the mission’s entire team.
Cassini was the first human probe that orbited Saturn. It was built and operated at JPL, launched in 1997 and put into orbit during 2004.
The spacecraft was able to reveal the structure of the rings around Saturn and, through delivering the Huygens probe to the moon Titan, executed the first spacecraft landing in the outer part of the solar system.
It exposed a pair of moons – Titan with its methane lakes and Enceladus with its water jets streaming from the southern pole – as targets in searching for life outside of Earth.
After orbiting for 13 years, Cassini leaves space researchers with more mysteries to consider. They still do not know how long the length of a day is on Saturn or understand quirks of the planet’s magnetic field.
It will be up to further missions to discover if one of the potentially habitable moons of Saturn could be home to life.
Mike Watkins the JPL director said that most of the information we have about Saturn in today’s science textbooks is from Cassini. He called the discoveries very compelling and said we must go back.
Last April, Cassini started 22 nearby orbits that took it between as well as behind the rings of Saturn. Earlier in the week, NASA flew the craft past Titan a final time, taking advantage of the gravitational pull of the moon to slingshot it toward Saturn.
That set Cassini on a final and eventually fatal course. At about 3:30 a.m. local time Friday, Cassini entered the atmosphere of Saturn plummeting at 77,000 mph.
For just minutes, the thrusters of the spacecraft fought to keep the high-gain antenna focused toward Earth, so it would continue sending real time data back from the unchartered territory
Over the final moments, the instruments on the spacecraft sampled molecules of the atmosphere of Saturn, which is information scientists will now use to understand the formation as well as composition of the planet.