After 20 years of triumph, cassini nears its death

US Spacecraft Cassini Readies for Fiery Plunge Into Saturn After 13-Year Mission

The same might be true for Cassini's place in pop culture.

Early Friday morning, before the sun rises over Pasadena, Calif., hundreds of scientists and researchers will gather to say goodbye to Cassini. Although it leaves behind a rich scientific legacy, the mission's cultural artifacts are few and far between. The Grand Finale is necessitated to prevent the possibility of Earthly bacteria that has been living on Cassini for the last 20 years contaminating an object orbiting Saturn - an unlikely but possible occurrence.

Cassini's final dive will end a mission that provided groundbreaking discoveries that included seasonal changes on Saturn, the moon Titan's resemblance to a primordial Earth, and a global ocean on the moon Enceladus with ice plumes spouting from its surface. This probe explored Saturn's moon Titan, which is larger than Mercury and is the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere.

Both Titan and Enceladus are now considered two of the best places to search for alien life in the Solar System, and the reason why NASA made a decision to ensure that the spacecraft will, in its final act, be programmed to take a trajectory that will ensure it burns up in Saturn's upper atmosphere. And without fuel, NASA can't control it. NASA later updated its post and confirmed that Cassini was back in contact with the mission's ground controllers. As seasons on Saturn last about seven Earth years each, Cassini was just able to witness summer in the northern hemisphere before the mission ends. But outside those two communities, what will serve as the tangible reminders of the mission? On June 30, 2004, the spacecraft successfully entered the orbit of Saturn carrying the Huygens probe.

After all of its contributions to our understanding of Saturn and the outer solar system, Cassini has been on a doomed trajectory since April. The Cassini-Huygens mission also brought together three agencies (NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian space agency), with a total of 27 nations participating.

The closest the mission seems to have come to inspiring a commercially-produced model was in the form of a happy meal toy.

It will be possible, but hard, to observe Cassini's death from Earth, due to the spacecraft's small size and the position of Saturn in the sky.

US Spacecraft Cassini Readies for Fiery Plunge Into Saturn After 13-Year Mission
Nasa's Cassini probe ends its 4.9bn-mile mission

The engineers would work hard to get the spacecraft back on its feet, but Staab said the process would take 10 to 12 hours.

The Cassini-Huygens mission has witnessed countless breath-taking phenomena.

The Cassini mission did result in several dedicated books, including a Haynes' Owners' Workshop Manual penned by Ralph Lorenz, a member of the Cassini radar team.

Intrigued by Cassini's discoveries, scientists have submitted concepts for future "spacecraft to drift on the methane seas of Titan and fly through the Enceladus plume to collect and analyze samples for signs of biology" that are now under consideration, according to NASA. Of Cassini's 162 targeted flybys of Saturn's 53 named and nine unnamed moons, 127 were of Titan.

Most lingering Cassini questions, though, are ones scientists never thought to ask before firing the orbiter into space. Four years became thirteen, as Cassini continuously exceeded expectations and NASA kept discovering new tasks for the probe.

The moment will mark the end of an eight billion kilometer journey that began at Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1997 and took Cassini around Venus and Jupiter en route to its destination.

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