TECH

Cassini Grand Finale: NASA Spacecraft Ends 13-Year Mission Around Saturn

NASA expects to lose contact with Cassini around 11:30 GMT.

15/09/2017 10:53 | Updated 15 September 2017

After nearly 13 years in orbit around Saturn and almost two decades in space NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has ended its mission with a spectacular dive into the planet’s atmosphere.

NASA has officially confirmed it lost contact with the probe.

As the spacecraft headed down into the planet’s atmosphere it was constantly broadcasting data and images. You can actually see the raw images as their being sent to NASA here.

NASA

Scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox have all paid tribute to the humble spacecraft that has given us an unprecedented view of one of the Solar System’s most impressive planets.

Launched in 1997, Cassini took a remarkable seven-years before it finally arrived at Saturn in 2007.

Since then however Cassini has made some truly astonishing discoveries.

By flying through the giant plumes on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, Cassini revealed that it had all the ingredients needed to support life outside of Earth.

NASA NASA / Reuters

Cassini also gave us an incredible glimpse into the vast hexagonal storm that rages on Saturn’s north pole.

A vast hurricane that has potentially raged for hundreds of years, this enormous storm has an eye that is over 50 times larger than any hurricane found on Earth.

Researchers were eventually able to determine that its geometrically shaped storms were only possible because of Saturn’s position relative to the Sun.

Cassini also spent a lot of its mission plummeting through Saturn’s rings, helping scientists to better understand its composition and the way that it interacts with Saturn’s many moons.

It discovered that Saturn’s rings were an astonishing feat of nature, measuring some 175,000 miles in length yet only reaching 300ft deep.

We’ve also learned what causes Saturn’s distinct rings, discovering much of its outer ring was made up of debris given off by Enceladus.

NASA NASA / Reuters

Finally Cassini has been instrumental in helping map and even discover some of Saturn’s potential 62 moons.

During its tenure around the planet it discovered some six new moons while also being able to capture them at remarkably high resolutions.

Hyperion (pictured below) was first photographed by Voyager 2, but it was only until Cassini arrived that we were able to see a crisp, clear high-resolution image of this tiny moon.

Ho New / Reuters

Saturn’s moon Titan became a particular source of interest for Cassini, not least because like Enceladus, it’s considered one of our strongest contenders for finding evidence of life outside of our own planet.

Not only did it land the ESA’s Hyugens probe on Titan’s surface, making it the first probe landing of a spacecraft in the outer solar system.

During its subsequent passes Cassini revealed that not only did Titan have vast oceans of methane but that they were being regularly filled up by huge amounts of rainfall.

Ultimately though it was this image, of light glinting off the oceans of Titan that captured our imagination.

NASA

While Cassini’s mission will officially come to an end, it’s probably fair to say the $4bn project has been nothing short of a resounding success.

7 Incredible Discoveries Made By Cassini

  • Titan
    Cassini has been getting up close to Saturn's planet-sized moon, Titan. Taking incredible photographs and learning more about its dunes, mountains and seas of pure liquid methane (definitely not for swimming). Not to mention the 95% nitrogen atmosphere. 
  • Auroras
    Just like our home planet, Saturn has powerful magnetic fields at its poles that create shimmering auroras, and for the first time Cassini was able to capture these incredible (and pretty intimidating) images of the glowing-pink Southern lights. 
  • Hexagonal Storms
    Not only are Saturn's poles decorated with beautiful auroras, they also have violent swirling storms with an (unusual) six-sided jet stream that creates these hexagonal weather patterns. But you don't want to get too close, as NASA found the eye of hurricanes on Saturn are 50 times wider than those on Earth.
  • Hyperion
    Hyperion is the largest of Saturn's "potato-shaped" moons and is likely to be the result of a violent collision that shattered a larger object into pieces. The sponge-like appearance means it has an unusually low density for such a large object -- about half that of water - and any material that comes into contact with it gets blown off, never to return.
  • Enceladus
    Pre-Cassini, scientists didn't understand why Encleadus was the brightest world in the solar system. But Cassini found it has a huge ocean of salty liquid water hidden beneath a surface of ice with exploding hydrothermal vents that send sporadic plumes of water shooting out into space. It is also one of the most promising locations for extra terrestrial life...
  • The Lapetus Ridge
    Saturn's two-toned moon, Lapetus, is surrounded in a cloud of reddish dust that gets swept around in orbit giving it a hellish colour. But that's not the strangest find, for the first time Cassini photographed a topographic ridge that runs along the equator. No one knows yet whether this is a mountain or a crack in the surface. 
  • Saturn's Rings
    Cassini's final mission has required getting closer to Saturn than ever before, dropping from a normal altitude of 1,000,000km above to just 120,000km. Although this did require Cassini to enter a "death plunge" and sacrifice itself, it has also resulted in the most intricate images of Saturn's B rings ever recorded, clearly showing the spiral density waves.
Suggest a correction
Comments

CONVERSATIONS