So Long, Cassini: UVA Astronomer Celebrates the Successes of Saturn Explorer

The earth as seen from Saturn

The spacecraft's Grand Finale orbits have brought it closer to the gas giant than any spacecraft has traveled, traversing the gap between the planet and its rings and diving into the unknown to learn as much as possible about the planet. ESA's Huygens probe to the surface of Titan flew to Saturn mounted to Cassini and the agency was a partner with NASA and the Italian Space Agency, ASI, on the mission.

It will be possible, but hard, to observe Cassini's death from Earth, due to the spacecraft's small size and the position of Saturn in the sky. But after Cassini revealed so many ocean worlds close at hand, that assumption has to be revised.

Speaking about Cassini, its lead propulsion engineer Todd Barber said. The huge outer "E" ring forms from the icy plumes that spray from the unexpectedly active Enceladus.

Cassini should begin entering Saturn's atmosphere at some point on Friday.

"Final approach: the spacecraft is on course to dive into Saturn's atmosphere September 15", Cassini's team said in its twitter on Wednesday.

This will likely happen around 6:30 a.m. It send back some gorgeous snapshots along the way and, now that its extended mission is complete, it's time for the spacecraft to perform the ultimate sacrifice. A joint mission with the European Space Agency, a single rocket sent Cassini and Huygens on a meandering path through the Solar System. Fearful that the spacecraft might crash-land and contaminate one of the pristine moons, mission controllers set Cassini on a collision course with the planet itself.

As Cassini descends, it will capture images and data from Saturn, its atmosphere and probe the inner workings of the planet.

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Titan, another moon of Saturn, is now thought to also have a watery ocean beneath its surface. Mission scientists learned to use Titan as a dance partner for the spacecraft, dipping into the moon's gravitational potential to fling Cassini onto new trajectories while conserving precious fuel.

"It's going to be tough to say goodbye, but I'm very proud of all Cassini has accomplished and to have been part of the mission from the very beginning", said Linda Spilker, project scientist at JPL, who began work on Cassini in the 1980s.

The moment will mark the end of an eight billion kilometer journey that began at Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1997 and took Cassini around Venus and Jupiter en route to its destination.

On the eve of its final descent, other instruments will make detailed observations of Saturn's aurora borealis, temperatures and polar storms.

Cassini will be doing science even after being gripped by Saturn's gravity, pulling it into destruction, by measuring the composition, temperature and other properties of Saturn's atmosphere. Why is the program ending now after 13 years?

"I think because it has been in the Saturn system for 13 years and it has just made discoveries and the ability for us to communicate those discoveries has exploded around it, that is now enabling us to draw attention and recognize that we really could have done a better job explaining how it got to where it is", said Green. When Cassini arrived, the northern hemisphere of Saturn was emerging from winter.

When Cassini, the craft that has spanned generations of researchers makes its final plunge, Larry and Jason will be together for the end of a journey they started on almost 30 years ago without even realizing it.

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