Cassini Ended its 20-Year Mission Today by Crashing Into Saturn

Friday, 15 September 2017 - 10:40AM
Space
Solar System
NASA
Friday, 15 September 2017 - 10:40AM
Cassini Ended its 20-Year Mission Today by Crashing Into Saturn
Image credit: NASA
R.I.P. Cassini, the hard-working space probe that's given us a far better understanding of Saturn and its moons.

Following thirteen years of orbiting the ringed planet, as well as seven years of travel time from Earth in order to arrive at its destination, Cassini has reached the end of its lifespan, with NASA scientists deliberately sending it crashing into Saturn's atmosphere in order to make sure that the probe's final act isn't to accidentally destroy one of its most important research subjects with icky Earth germs.

Cassini has spent much of the past thirteen years collecting data on Enceladus and Titan, two of Saturn's moons which might be capable of supporting life. As the probe grew older, NASA scientists decided that it posed a potential danger to these moons' environments: as a product of Earth, Cassini is covered in bacteria and other microscopic life forms from our planet, so should the probe have broken down suddenly, it could have accidentally crash-landed on Enceladus or Titan, contaminating the moons with creatures that could dramatically alter conditions there, and even potentially wipe out indigenous life (should any exist).

Thus, in order to ensure that Earth sticks to the Prime Directive as best we can and not interfere with less developed life forms, the decision was made to purposefully bring Cassini's mission to a close in a dramatic manner, vaporizing the probe in Saturn's atmosphere.



Essential as this may be, it's also a bittersweet moment for astronomers. Cassini has been faithful to the cause throughout its mission, and right up until the end has been providing fascinating data and photographs of Saturn and its orbiting moons.

In the words of program manager Earl Maize: "This has been an incredible mission, an incredible team. I'm going to call this 'end of mission.'"

So goodbye Cassini, and thank you for your service. Thanks to this humble probe, we've gained a lot of understanding about one of the most interesting locations within our solar system. At least, in the end, Cassini got to go out with a bang as part of its "grand finale". Such a stalwart friend of celestial exploration deserves nothing less than fireworks.
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