The Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn early Friday morning, after sending NASA its last-ever message with final bits of data.
Cassini was one of the most successful planetary science missions in history, writes the Washington Post. It was launched in 1997 and inserted into orbit in 2004, and was, in the simplest terms, a game changer. Not only did the spacecraft reveal the structure of Saturn’s rings and execute the first landing of a spacecraft in the outer solar system, but it also exposed two moons, which are now prime targets for the search for alien life.
It did not reveal everything, but program manager Earl Maize said that he could not ask for more from Cassini. After 13 years in orbit, “We’ve left the world informed, but still wondering,” he said, according to the Washington Post.
It might seem aggressive to send the ship to its death, but NASA did not want to risk letting it remain aloft once it ran out of gas, because it could be knocked into the two moons (named Titan and Enceladus). Scientists began a series of 22 close-in orbits back in April, which allowed them to gather more data, and then they took advantage of the moon’s gravitational pull to shoot the spacecraft towards Saturn.
The Washington Post writes that the spacecraft plummeted at a pace of 77,000 miles per hour. And of course, it gathered some final, incredibly important pieces of data on its way down. The spacecraft’s instruments sampled the molecules in the planet’s atmosphere, which scientists can use to understand the composition and formation of the planet.
NASA isn’t the only group of scientists to feel sad that the mission is ending. In fact, so many researchers and space enthusiasts alike wanted to watch the spacecraft’s final moments that there wasn’t enough room at JPL, so a viewing party at Caltech was set up.
Cassini’s success inspired NASA to add the two new moons to its call-out proposals for the New Frontiers program, which is a group of medium-sized missions.
Lead scientist Linda Spilker, who worked on the Cassini mission since its inception in the late 1980s, called Cassini’s revelations “one of the most astonishing discoveries for planetary science … that has really changed our thinking about where to look for life,” according to the Washington Post.
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