Cassini spacecraft falls silent after plunge towards Saturn

Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson

Launched in 1997, the 3.26 billion US dollar Cassini-Huygens mission has been touring the Saturn system since arriving there in 2004.

The safe disposal of Cassini was viewed as the best way of avoiding the remote possibility of contaminating the pristine moons with Earth bugs. Tides driven by Saturn's powerful gravity help stretch and deform this global, water-ammonia (similar to a window cleaner product on Earth) ocean.

"This is the final chapter of an unbelievable mission, but it's also a new beginning", said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Ground control sent the spacecraft into the atmosphere of Saturn at about 12.55PM on Friday, September 15, completing a 20-year long mission.

Carolyn Porco's favorite image of Saturn and its moon Enceladus was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on March 16, 2006, at a distance of approximately 1.3 million miles from Saturn.

According to NASA's predictions, the spacecraft will lose contact with Earth around 7:55 a.m EDT on Friday.

Spacecraft Operations Manager Julie Webster announced the loss of signal within a minute of the predicted demise.

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Space scientists from Aberystwyth University will monitor the final stages of a mission to Saturn.

The decision to end the mission was made because the probe would soon run out of fuel and become impossible to steer.

Several hours before Cassini burned up, its infrared imaging instrument pointed down at Saturn and took a picture of the spot where it was headed. Simply because there is no "follow spacecraft" there, to send back true images of Cassini as it makes its plunge. In the 13 subsequent years, Cassini collected unprecedented data from the ringed planet and its many moons. Once they are firing at full capacity, the thrusters can do no more to keep Cassini stably pointed, and the spacecraft will begin to tumble.

British scientists and the European Space Agency (ESA) worked alongside Nasa in the historic mission - which saw the first ever landing on an outer solar system world when the Huygen attachment separated from Cassini to land on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, in 2005.

During its historic exploration, Cassini discovered that Saturn's planet-sized moon Titan has three large seas, all located close to the moon's north pole, surrounded by numerous smaller lakes in the northern hemisphere.

"Cassini has given us a cornucopia of information about Saturn, its rings and its moons", he said. This last route took Cassini in the gap between Saturn and its rings, the closest the vehicle has ever come to the planet.

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