'Bittersweet' End for Cassini Saturn Probe

'I've never watched a spacecraft die': NASA team member
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 15, 2017 12:05 PM CDT
'Bittersweet' End for Cassini Saturn Probe
Engineer Mar Vaquero monitors the status of NASA's Cassini spacecraft as it enters the atmosphere of Saturn in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Friday.   (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, Pool)

Three missions, 20 years in space, 4.9 billion miles traveled, and nearly a half-million photographs taken. Those are just a few of the figures Space.com throws out about the day of what it deems the "bittersweet" demise of the Cassini space probe, which, on its last fumes of fuel, hurled itself into the depths of Saturn Friday morning in a mission of self-destruction. During its space run, Cassini gathered valuable information about the planet, including data on dust particles, reports on Saturn's plasma, and the ins and out of the planet's electromagnetics. It also dropped about 8,000 pounds over the long haul—mostly due to its dwindling fuel supply and dumping another probe onto the moon Titan. More coverage on the probe's "grand finale":

  • Vox dives more into what Cassini culled during its missions, noting the probe "completely transformed our understanding" of Saturn. It also laments what it says "will be our last look at the planet for at least a generation," as no Saturn-bound missions are planned for the near future.
  • Live Science rounds up the 7 oddest finds of Cassini, including one rarity: The spacecraft appears to have documented the birth of a small new Saturn moon in 2014. Scientists named it Peggy.
  • Cassini may have done too good a job at data-gathering, with the Washington Post noting it was a "victim of its own success." The probe had discovered that two of Saturn's moons—Titan and Enceladus—may be conducive to life someday. That meant if Cassini were left to drift in space after running out of fuel, it could have accidentally knocked into one of the moons, scattering the surfaces with Earth microbes and possibly contaminating the moons. Meaning: Cassini had to be sacrificed.
  • NASA features emotional interviews with the veteran leads behind each of Cassini's systems, revealing their backstories and their feelings on saying goodbye to the probe. "I've never watched a spacecraft die," one says. Another talks about how, to increase his chances of being hired for the project in the mid-'90s, he did what he thought would be a sure in: He bought a Saturn, then a new car model from GM, as a conversation starter.
  • An awe-inspiring interactive journey of Cassini's "final moments" and "triumphant end" is featured on NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory website, with facts about its mission and a timeline of its last 24 hours.
  • The NASA and Cassini Saturn Twitter feeds were also in overdrive Friday morning, showing off pics from Mission Control, interviews with key players, and an infrared view of where Cassini made its final plunge. "Earth received @CassiniSaturn’s final signal at 7:55am ET. Cassini is now part of the planet it studied. Thanks for the science," NASA tweeted.
(More Cassini stories.)

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