That’s a wrap for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. After spending 13 years traveling throughout Saturn and its moons, Cassini ended its mission with a fiery descent into the ringed giant’s upper atmosphere. NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen had the perfect words to mark today’s bittersweet milestone.
“This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning,” said Zurbuchen, who serves as associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.”
NASA also released the final set of images from Cassini leading up to this morning’s fateful plunge.
One final glance at Titan.
Pictures of the hazy moon from Voyager 2 helped make the Cassini mission a reality.
Enceladus sets behind Saturn.
It was Cassini that discovered plumes of water venting from the moon’s south polar region. In 2014, NASA announced evidence of a large subsurface ocean of liquid water placing the moon near the top of the list for looking for potential life in our solar system.
Daphnis ripples through the rings.
The gravity interaction between the small moon and its rings cause the ripples seen above. Daphnis’ orbit is slightly elliptical. It sometimes drifts closer to the inner edge (and outer edge) of the Keeler gap. It then tugs on one side of the rings creating ripples. You can just see how both edges of the ring have ripples. Above the moon, it’s on the left edge. Below, it’s on the right.
Saturn’s majestic rings.
What else needs to be said?
Stay on target.
Cassini readies its final run towards Saturn.
So long, Cassini. You paved the way for exploration to worlds we never thought of visiting.
What happens now?
Cassini’s team won’t rest for long. A good chunk of the engineering team is making their way to other planetary missions. But the Cassini mission isn’t quite over. There’s still plenty of data to parse through. And that’s what mission scientists will be tackling over the next few years. Scientists will “carefully calibrate and study all of this data so that it can be entered into the Planetary Data System,” says NASA. Once done, future scientists can harness the data for research.
Today won’t be the last day we hear from Cassini.
For some folks on the Cassini team, this mission is their life’s work. Most of their careers built on one of NASA’s finest probes. Some will go out on top and retire.
And Cassini’s influence will make it to other worlds. Several members of the Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team are building an even more sensitive version of the instrument to fly on the Europa Clipper.
Cassini revealed a system ripe for future exploration. It’s up to us to carry Cassini’s legacy forward.
Image credits: NASA