This one is technically not yet history, because at the time of posting, the little craft has about half an hour left to go. That said, let’s proceed.
In 2017, NASA’s Cassini space probe ended its twenty-year mission at Saturn. After a nearly-seven-year-long journey there, it orbited the ringed planet for 13 years and just over two months, gathering copious amounts of information about the planet, said rings, and many of its moons. It landed an ESA probe called Huygens on Titan, the first-ever soft landing in the outer Solar System. It discovered lakes, seas, and rivers of methane on Titan, geysers of water erupting from Enceladus (and passed within 50 miles of that moon’s surface), and found gigantic, raging hurricanes at both of Saturn’s poles.
And the images it returned are beautiful enough to make you weep.
On this day in 2017, with the fuel for Cassini’s directional thrusters running low, the probe was de-orbited into the Saturnian atmosphere to prevent any possibility of any contamination of possible biotic environments on Titan or Enceladus. The remaining thruster fuel was used to keep the radio dish pointed towards Earth so the probe could transmit information about the upper atmosphere of Saturn while it was burning up due to atmospheric friction.
This is us at our best. We spent no small amount of money on a nuclear-powered robot, launched it into space, sent it a billion miles away, and worked with it for two decades just to learn about another planet. And when the repeatedly-extended missions were through, we made the little craft sacrifice itself like a samurai, performing its duty as long as it could while it became a shooting star in the Saturnian sky.
Rhea occulting Saturn
Water geysers on Enceladus
Look at this gorgeousness
A gigantic motherfucking storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere
This image is from the surface of a moon of a planet at least 746 million miles away. Sweet lord
Vertical structures in the rings. Holy shit
Titan and Dione occulting Saturn, rings visible
Little Daphnis making gravitational ripples in the rings
That’s here. That’s home. That’s all of us that ever lived.
A polar vortex on the gas giant
(All images from NASA/JPL)