The End Is Nigh for Cassini: Saturn Probe Enters Final 48 Hours

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will make its plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15, after 20 years in space.

Ian Griffin says Cassini has had an awesome mission which has transformed our understanding of Saturn. During its time in orbit, Cassini has discovered numerous moons, made over a hundred fly-bys of Titan, taken hundreds of thousands of photographs of Saturn and its 62 moons, and provided the data to identify 101 saltwater geysers erupting on the 6th largest moon, Enceladus.

"In these very final seconds, we'll be plunging deeper into the atmosphere of Saturn than we've ever gone before", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist.

Surface observations on Titan are planned at LPL, and then sent to the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations, or CICLOPS, at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which Porco heads as director.

One of Cassini's chief discoveries was a global watery ocean beneath the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

The Canberra station has been with Cassini through every step of its journey of discovery, from when it first opened its "eyes" to the Universe after launching in 1997 to receiving the signal confirming that Cassini had arrived safely in orbit at Saturn in 2004. The small craft skimmed the outer edges of the planet's atmosphere and the inner edges of the rings, sending back incredible photographs.

The Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn since mid-2004, will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere in the early morning hours of September 15.

The whole mission cost £2.9 billion. Scientists were concerned that it could soon prove impossible to control, and there was a remote chance of it colliding with Titan or Enceladus - both worlds that conceivably could host life.

To protect those Enceladus and Titan from contamination with Earth life, Cassini is going to dive down into Saturn's atmosphere before the probe runs out of fuel, which could have left it drifting on a collision course with the planet's moons.

Cassini also carried a small lander called Huygens, supplied by the European Space Agency, whose descent to the surface of Saturn's giant moon Titan made headlines around the world and marked the highpoint of the mission. Image credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute. In April, it began a series of maneuvers known as the "Grand Finale", that would ultimately send the probe crashing into Saturn. Among Cassini's objectives is the study of Saturn's rings, Titan's atmosphere, and the behavior of Saturn's magnetosphere. Saturn has been Cassini's home for the last 13 years.

All of this adds up to make the loss hard not just on the scientific community, but difficult for those average people (like me) who followed Cassini's movements at Saturn regularly. Nasa did not want to risk contaminating the environments with Earth bugs.

And so a man-made meteor will streak across Saturn's sky soon after 11.30 am United Kingdom time, though confirmation of the spacecraft's demise more than a billion kilometres away, and on the wrong side of the asteroid belt, will not reach Earth for another 83 minutes, when the signals beamed home from the probe fall silent.

Faced with dwindling propellent supplies, Cassini's engineering team dreamt up an audacious plan to get the most interesting science results possible before safely disposing of the spacecraft.

  • Carolyn Briggs