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Cassini’s Finale and Plunge Into Saturn: What to Expect – New York Times

NASA did the same thing with its Galileo orbiter in 2003, sending it plunging into the clouds of Jupiter to protect Europa, another moon where scientists think life could exist.

How will the Cassini mission conclude?

The beginning of the end was Monday, when Cassini flew close to Titan, the biggest of Saturn’s moons, for the 127th time. The flybys have provided a close-up examination of an intriguing haze-shrouded world; Cassini’s navigators on Earth have also enlisted the flybys as gravitational kicks to send it to the next target.

This last flyby was “just close enough, just the right orientation to seal Cassini’s fate,” Dr. Maize said.


From left, Cassini’s project manager, Earl Maize, Linda Spilker, project scientist, and other officials discussed the end of the mission on Wednesday at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

On Wednesday and Thursday, Cassini started taking a final set of photographs, of the rings, Enceladus, Titan and Saturn itself. One image will be the spot where Cassini will disintegrate.

At 5:45 p.m. Eastern time on Thursday, that final stream of images will start arriving on Earth. When that is complete, more than 10 hours later, “We will then reconfigure Cassini for its very final transmissions,” Dr. Maize said.

For most of the mission, Cassini collected observations and stored them in its memory to transmit to Earth later. On Thursday and Friday, there will be no time. Instead, Cassini will keep its main antenna pointed toward Earth and send data back almost as soon its instruments collects it. The transmission is too slow for photographs, so the camera will be turned off during those final hours.

NASA TV will broadcast live commentary online of Cassini’s end, beginning at 7 a.m. Eastern time on Friday.

Cassini’s last radio transmissions will disappear at 7:55 a.m., according to calculations by NASA engineers. The time of death at Saturn will have actually been one hour, 23 minutes earlier, but that is the time it takes the signals, moving at the speed of light, to travel the 1 billion miles that currently separate Saturn and Earth, picked up by radio telescopes in Australia and then sent to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory here.

Then, for the foreseeable future, there will be no new data coming from Saturn.

A science mission to the very end

Scientists will be studying for years the information that Cassini gathered. But the engineers working on the mission will disperse to new projects.

“It’s a mix of sadness of Cassini ending, saying goodbye to this Cassini family we talk about,” said Linda Spilker, the project scientist. “We’ve been together, for lots of us, for multiple decades.”

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Cassini’s Finale and Plunge Into Saturn: What to Expect – New York Times

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