NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for nearly 20 years, snapping pictures of the gigantic planet and its moons, sending valuable data to space agencies across the globe. But now, it is time for it to be retired.
The spacecraft just made its 127th and final approach to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, passing at an altitude of about 608 miles above its surface. Cassini snapped pictures of it and sent them back to Earth to give scientists an insight into how Saturn and its moons interact and influence each other.
Scientists are particularly interested in Cassini’s radar investigation which contains images of the hydrocarbon seas and lakes spread across Titan’s north polar region. They are keen to see new data about a region previously captured by Cassini’s cameras, but not by its radar.
They also hope to use the new data to probe and understand the depths and compositions of some of Titan’s scattered small lakes for the first and last time. One of them is the so-called Magic Island phenomena, which is a large hydrocarbon sea that changes over time. It has been suggested that this phenomena could be caused by streams of bubbles, but further analysis need to be carried out before any conclusions could be made.
Its last flyby also put Cassini on course for its epic last act, known as the Grand Finale. As the spacecraft passed over it, Titan’s gravity slightly bent its path, bringing it closer to itself. So instead of going outside Saturn’s main rings, Cassini dived right into them,and is expected to pass through layers of space rocks and dust 22 times.
During its plunge into the rings, it was discovered that their actual size is much bigger than previously estimated. What’s even more amazing is that they could be as old as the planet itself. Some of them are only 100 million years old, and they were probably formed by comets which were disintegrated by Saturn’s powerful gravity.
Earl Maize, the project manager at NASA says that he and his team are optimistic and very pleased by Cassini’s scientific contribution and performance. “With this flyby we’re committed to the Grand Finale. The spacecraft has proved itself so far. It 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 15th no matter what.”
And once that happens, Cassini will be flying into its own doom. If everything goes according to plan, it will crash into the surface of Saturn, thus becoming a part of the planet it first encountered 20 years ago, and has been circling ever since.
“It will disintegrate and be vaporized. it may sound awful, but for me, it is a noble way for a probe to end its mission. After all, is there a better place for Cassini to eternally rest other than Saturn?”, Maize explains adding that although he is happy for successfully completing the mission, he can’t help but feel a bit sad as he watches his project come to an end.