One of the most successful science missions in history came to an end Friday morning. Or at least partially.
Even though NASA sent the Cassini spacecraft hurtling into the surface of a planet, the project’s legacy will live on for years to come.
CGTN’s Hendrik Sybrandy explains.
In Boulder, Colorado, everything for breakfast came in the form of a ring. It was a fitting tribute for the Cassini space probe, a long-time companion of the ringed planet Saturn, as they prepared to say goodbye.
At the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) and at mission control in California, it was a bittersweet occasion.
“Excitement is really palpable here,” LASP Principal Investigator Larry Esposito said. “There are about 20 scientists in the first few rows, and half a dozen boxes of Kleenex.”
Cassini blasted off nearly two decades ago, and began orbiting Saturn in 2004. Its dozen instruments spent the next 13 years scouring every possible aspect of the large and mysterious planet.
Fran Bagenal analyzed data from LASP’s ultraviolet imaging spectrograph, a instrument which studied Saturn’s atmospheric composition.
“The biggest discovery was the moon Enceladus has volcanic vents of water jetting out,” Bagenal explained. According to the scientist, it’s an indication that primitive life forms may exist on the moon.
But as happens to every vehicle, Cassini was on the verge of running out of fuel. It could have continued to orbit Saturn on its own, but engineers didn’t want to risk having the spacecraft crash into one of the planet’s moons.
An impact could have contaminated the celestial body, introducing bacteria from Earth. So after five months of diving between Saturn and its rings, Cassini was plunged into the planet’s atmosphere where it disintegrated.
The craft leaves behind an information-rich legacy, having provided more than 635 gigabytes of data.
Following a remarkable journey of 20 years, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft disintegrated in the skies above Saturn on Friday in a final blaze of cosmic glory. Here are some of the final images Cassini shared with Earth before its final descent.
“We’re going to continue to analyze this data for years to come, and continue to rewrite textbooks about how this Saturn was formed,” according to Bill Possel, the LASP Mission Operations Data Systems Director.
Researchers say they now realize Saturn is a much more complex planet than anyone had realized, and it may provide clues as to why humans and such diverse life exist on Earth.
Cassini completed almost 300 orbits and traveled almost 8 billion kilometers to get its job done.
According to one scientist, the probe did “everything that we asked it to do. And more.”