PASADENA, Calif. — NASA scientists just received their last-ever message from the Cassini spacecraft, which plunged into Saturn early Friday morning. Those final bits of data signal the end of one of the most successful planetary science missions in history.
The pioneering probe was the first to orbit Saturn; launched in 1997 and inserted into orbit in 2004, it revolutionized our understanding of the ringed planet. Cassini revealed the structure of Saturn’s rings and, by delivering the Huygens probe to the moon Titan, executed the first landing of a spacecraft in the outer solar system. It also exposed two moons -Titan, a land of methane lakes, and Enceladus, which has jets of water streaming from its southern pole – as prime targets in the search for life beyond Earth.
After 13 years in orbit, Cassini leaves researchers with still more mysteries to ponder: they don’t know the length of the Saturn day or understand the quirks of its magnetic field. And it will fall to a future mission to discover whether one of Saturn’s potentially-habitable moons could truly be home to alien life.
“We’ve left the world informed, but still wondering,” program manager Earl Maize told reporters days before Cassini’s demise. “As a scientist, I couldn’t ask for more.”
It’s precisely because of its successes that Cassini had to die. Once the spacecraft ran out of fuel, NASA would not risk letting it remain aloft, where it might be knocked into Titan or Enceladus. In April, Cassini began a series of 22 close-in orbits that took it between and behind Saturn’s rings. Earlier this week, NASA flew Cassini past Titan one last…
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