After 20 years of the mission, the ‘Cassini’ probe prepares to burn in the atmosphere of the gas giant.
More than 1.2 billion kilometers from Earth, a lone space probe prepared to die. After nearly 20 years in operation, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft concluded its mission in 2017 by plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere but not before visiting a totally unexplored area of the sixth planet in the Solar System.
Launched in October 1997, this ship was the first in history to orbit Saturn. Its cameras have portrayed, as never before, the spectacular planet, its imposing rings, the Titan and Enceladus moons, which can hold life, and have even discovered new natural satellites in full formation. The mission is the result of a cooperation between the US space agency, the European agency, which developed the Huygens probe that landed on Titan, and the Italian Space Agency.
At the end of November, Cassini began to change course. Its initial objective was to reach an orbit that overflies the north pole and the outermost part of the F ring, the furthest from the planet. From April 2017, the ship approached Titan to use its gravitational thrust and go to its “Grand Final,” as NASA has named it. In this last phase, the ship entered the space between the innermost ring and the planet, an extension of about 2,400 kilometers wide in which there had never been a human ship before. It made 22 orbits, each lasting six days, and looked at the gas giant closer than ever. The data transmitted can answer several key questions, such as exactly how long a day on the planet lasts, what is its internal structure, how fast its unreachable core rotates, and when its rings were formed, the largest in the Solar System? For the first time, it analyzed ice particles from the main rings and the outer layers of the atmosphere, as explained by NASA in a statement.
On September 15, 2017, Cassini entered the planet’s atmosphere until it disintegrated like a meteorite. This happened due to the friction of the air. Studies record that the ship’s fuel was running low and could get out of control. One of the objectives of this controlled suicide was to avoid contaminating the lakes of Titan or the seas of Enceladus, where the ship had discovered geysers, with terrestrial microbes that could have survived on board Cassini.