It is almost a time to say goodbye to the most known Saturn’s spacecraft! Cassini launched on its epic journey to Saturn in 1997. Since then it has worked hard to become one of the most successful space missions ever. NASA announced at the press conference that the end date is 15 September 2017, when Cassini will make its suicidal charge into the atmosphere.

Cassini’s Creation Of The History

Sixteen European countries and the United States, managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, started in the 1980s to design and develop two spacecraft. First was Cassini, named after astronomer Giovanni Cassini and the second was a lander Huygens, named after astronomer Christiaan Huygens. Since the beginning, Cassini was planning to visit and explore Saturn, while Huygens for the Saturn’s moon Titan.

The spacecraft launched on October 15, 1997, and entered orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004, after an interplanetary voyage that included flybys of Earth, Venus, and Jupiter. On December 25, 2004, Huygens separated from the orbiter, and it landed on Saturn’s moon Titan on January 14, 2005.

Cassini completed its four-year primary mission in 2008 and went on to perform dozens of more flybys of Titan, Enceladus and Saturn’s other icy moons through its 10th anniversary in 2014. Image credit: NASA

The mission worth US$3.26 billion has a remarkable list of achievements. Some of the most important are:

  • Discovery of active, icy plumes on the Saturnian moon Enceladus
  • Saturn’s rings revealed as active and dynamic
  • The Huygens probe makes first landing on the moon in the outer solar system
  • Studies reveal radio-wave patterns are not tied to Saturn’s interior rotation, as previously thought
  • Titan revealed as an Earth-like world with rain, rivers, lakes and seas
  • Mystery of the dual, bright-dark surface of the moon Iapetus solved
  • First complete view of the north polar hexagon and discovery of giant hurricanes at both of Saturn’s poles

“What we learn from Cassini’s daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is a true discovery in action to the very end” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.

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The Grand Finale

After 20 years in space, Cassini is running out of fuel. In order to protect Saturn’s moon because of conditions suitable for life, a spectacular end has been planned. It’s almost a mission for itself.

Cassini has to do 22 dives through the space between Saturn and its rings. During that time, it will ‘taste’ the composition of Saturn’s atmosphere as it descends into the gases, broadcasting its readings in real-time back to satellite dishes on Earth. On the final orbit, Cassini will plunge into Saturn, melting and vaporizing until becoming a part of the planet itself.

What an epic ending for one of the most significant probes in the history of science.