NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft To Go Out With A Bang

Cassini has uncovered a trove of exciting scientific information by discovering new moons of Saturn, exploring the jetting geysers of Enceladus, and studying the bizarre polar hexagon at Saturn’s north pole.

Cassini has uncovered a trove of exciting scientific information by discovering new moons of Saturn, exploring the jetting geysers of Enceladus, and studying the bizarre polar hexagon at Saturn’s north pole.

For its “grand finale,” the Cassini space probe will orbit between Saturn and its innermost ring, before plunging itself into the gas giant’s atmosphere. A dramatic end to an amazing mission.

NASA has chosen a name for the dramatic final phase of its Saturn-studying Cassini mission, with a little help from the public. Starting in late 2016, Cassini will zip between Saturn and its innermost ring a total of 22 times in a mission phase now known as the “Cassini Grand Finale,” which will end in September 2017 when the probe intentionally dives into the gas giant’s atmosphere.

The spacecraft’s handlers had been calling this upcoming period “the proximal orbits” because Cassini will be so close to the planet, but they felt this apellation lacked pizzazz. So in April, they asked the public to vote for names provided by mission team members or suggest monikers of their own.  More than 2,000 people took part, NASA officials said. The team took the public’s input into account, then decided to go with the “Cassini Grand Finale.”  “We chose a name for this mission phase that would reflect the exciting journey ahead while acknowledging that it’s a big finish for what has been a truly great show,” Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement.


In the above depiction, orange hydrocarbons color a landscape covered with lakes and peaks of frozen methane and ammonia. For illustration purposes, the Huygens probe is drawn parachuting down with an oversized Cassini spacecraft orbiting above.

Cassini launched toward Saturn in October 1997 and arrived in orbit around the ringed planet 10 years ago yesterday (June 30). The $3.2 billion mission — a collaboration involving NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency — also dropped a lander named Huygens onto Saturn’s huge moon Titan in January 2005.  Cassini has made a number of important discoveries during its 10 years at Saturn. For example, the spacecraft detected plumes of water ice blasting from geysers at the south pole of the moon Enceladus, suggesting the Saturn satellite harbors an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell.

The Cassini Grand Finale should ensure the long-lived mission goes out with a bang, NASA officials say. During the 22 super-close orbits, the probe will map Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields in detail, assess how much material is in the planet’s iconic rings and take up-close pictures of Saturn and the rings. The mission team will ultimately steer Cassini into Saturn’s atmosphere to ensure that the spacecraft doesn’t crash into (and possibly contaminate) the moons Titan and Enceladus, which may host indigenous life of their own. Christian Science Monitor

MY short lived involvement– When Cassini arrived at Saturn I was lucky enough to be appointed an ambassador for the mission and undertook an extensive series of radio interviews describing the mission and its objectives. Unfortunately, a member of a local Queensland astronomy group I know but won’t mention here didn’t like this, felt threatened by it and the amount of publicity I was getting. Being persons with little or no public activity other than their local area sky shows one, and probably both, scanned every word I was saying and pored over any newspaper report I was mentioned in looking for ways to oust me, leaving them the only ones in Australia connected with the mission.

Well, they succeeded by reporting back to NASA that I was touting myself as a ‘NASA Rep’ on radio. I wasn’t. It is unfortunate that one, or possibly two, radio interviewers used that term on air during an interview, or the lead in for it, making it sound like I organised it that way. These people relayed this info on to the US Cassini Ambassador ( a fairly slow witted Jane Houston – Jones) without contacting me for my side of the story. I made sevaral attempts to defend myself but was summarily dumped. In my own way, in the future, I will address this issue and return that favour to our Qld friends.


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