You’re going to see a lot of news in the next couple days about the space probe Cassini and its “Grand Finale,” which is finally coming to an end. What’s it all about?
Cassini is a space probe launched in 1997 to explore Saturn. It took her seven years to get there (the first thing she did was head the opposite direction, to Venus, to pick up some momentum!) but she arrived safely in 2004. She’s been out there collecting data and taking picture for us ever since!
Some amazing things Cassini has done so far:
She discovered new moons, Methone, Pallene, and Aegaeon!
She carried the space probe Huygens most of the way to its successful landing on Saturn’s moon Titan!
She discovered water (definitely vapor, and probably liquid too) on the moon Enceladus!
She took amazing photos of Saturn, allowing us to see previously undiscovered rings!
She found oxygen on the moons Rhea and Dione, the first time we’ve found it anywhere but earth!
She dove between Saturn and its rings!
Her 20 year mission ends this week, when she dives toward Saturn for the last time and burns up in the atmosphere.
What’s the timeline for the end of the Cassini mission?
It’s already started! The Grand Finale stage of the mission officially began back in April. We’re now entering the final hours.
September 9: Cassini passed between Saturn and its rings for the last time
September 11: Cassini completed her final flyby of Titan
September 13/14: Cassini takes her final photos of Saturn and its rings
September 14: Cassini begins its continuous data transmission to earth. This will last until the mission completes.
September 15: Cassini enters Saturn’s atmosphere.
Why are we sending her to burn up?
We’re sending her to do so much more than that! She’ll be collecting and transmitting data to earth until the very last moments—data we couldn’t get any other way.
And the data she’s already given us make this mission conclusion (though a little wistful) very important! By burning up in Saturn’s atmosphere, she guarantees that the potential life (supported by the water she discovered) on Saturn’s moons will remain uncontaminated by ay microbes that may have hitched a ride from earth.
If you don’t think that’s the raddest shit, I don’t know what to tell you!