Cassini’s Grand Finale

September 15, 2017

It happened in spectacular fashion. On Friday, September 15th, around 6:30 a.m. Eastern Time, the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere after orbiting the planet for thirteen years. But before all of this plunging business, Cassini had other business to tend to that took, well, about five months! Cassini’s grand finale started in April. It flew by Titus, one of Saturn’s moons, one last time, or what some space scientists at NASA called a final “goodbye kiss,” and completed twenty-two weekly dives between Saturn and its rings.

By NASA/JPL-Caltech [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
For Cassini’s final task, it dove into Saturn’s atmosphere at extreme speeds (we’re talking tens of thousands of miles per hour!) causing friction and immense heat, which ultimately tore the spacecraft apart. But Cassini couldn’t just dive into Saturn’s atmosphere without giving scientists back on Earth a few parting gifts, right? Like a true rock star, Cassini collected as much information as possible to send back to Earth, before it completely broke apart.  Scientists back on Earth confirmed the destruction of Cassini eighty-five minutes after it actually happened. Why eighty-five minutes? Because the spacecraft is nearly 900 million miles away and it takes that long for the signal to reach back to Earth!

Want to learn more about Cassini? Scroll down for a few more cool facts!

via NASA

1) Cassini is about the size of a school bus and weighs approximately six tons. More than half of that weight is from the rocket fuel it’s carrying.

2) Cassini was the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn. Other spacecrafts had zoomed past and taken pictures that led to the discovery of Saturn’s moons and ring system, but it was Cassini that allowed for a more in-depth study of Saturn.

3) In 2005, Cassini’s probe, called Huygens, landed on Titus. Huygens’ nearly two and a half hours of exploration revealed that Titus is very much like Earth before humans started living on it. How so? Titus shares similar features such as dry lake beds, rain, and mountains.

Titan, one of Saturn’s many moons. Via NASA

4) Cassini allowed scientists to discover two large hurricane-like storms at Saturn’s north and south poles.

5) One of the main reasons for retiring Cassini and letting it plunge into Saturn is because it was running out of fuel. The other? To keep Cassini from possibly colliding with Enceladus, one of Saturn’s many moons, and contaminating it with things like nuclear batteries—something that definitely doesn’t belong there!

6) Cassini did some pretty amazing things. Here’s a short list of its accomplishments:

7) This is the last image that Cassini took and sent back to Earth:

Via NASA

According to NASA, this is an image of Cassini, “look[ing] toward the planet’s night side, lit by reflected light from the rings.”

Thank you, Cassini! You completed your mission like a rock star—what an amazing grand finale indeed!

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