Cassini Ready To Crash Into Saturn

An artist's rendition shows the Cassini spacecraft approaching the planet Saturn.

An artist’s rendition shows the Cassini spacecraft approaching the planet Saturn.

When the Cassini spacecraft hurtles at 111,000km/h through Saturn’s mysterious rings and into the planet’s hydrogen and ice atmosphere this Friday, NASA mission control will be ready and set to record history.

They’ll be relying on the deep space antenna in Canberra to handle the historic finale to a 7.8 billion km voyage. CSIRO’s team at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex will commence its control tracking at 1.15pm and capture the final nine hours of signals from Cassini until it plunges into Saturn at 9.54pm, 20 years after the date of its launch from Cape Canaveral.

NASA operations support officer Glen Nagle at CDSCC, said the Canberra team would be saying goodbye to a constant friend after decades of receiving new information.

Those discoveries included the evidence of methane rains, lakes, ice plumes and prebiotic material on Saturnian moons Titan and Enceladus, changes in Saturn’s dynamic ring system and massive planetary storms in data signals which travelled up to 1.5 billion km back to Earth at the speed of light.

Cassini’s final moments will utilise its mass spectrometer to “sniff” Saturn’s atmosphere to reveal new information about the giant gaseous planet’s structure and composition, unique information which is unable to be detected from outside the troposphere, with its winds which can reach 1800km/h and temperature range of minus 250 degrees to plus 80 centigrade.

Cassini is the most distant planetary orbiter ever launched and, touring the Saturn system since its arrival in 2004, it has observed almost half of a Saturn year, which is 29 Earth years long.

The joint mission with the European Space Agency also enabled the piggyback delivery of ESA’s Huygens probe to Titan in 2005, where it performed the first descent and landing on a world in the outer solar system.

Come Friday, control feeds and data reception will take 83 minutes to travel from the unmanned Cassini to Canberra — using eight of its 12 science instruments during the final descent to test temperature, plasma density in Saturn’s ionosphere, thermosphere and magnetic field — until NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission control in the US announces “loss of signal” after the final call home has been made.  Adapted: Herald Sun

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