The Cassini spacecraft is about to end its role in one of the most incredible scientific journeys in history. Launched almost twenty years ago on a billion-mile trip to Saturn, Cassini has been sending back astounding images and data ever since. An international collaboration of U.S. and European space agencies, Cassini has probably delivered more surprises to researchers on Earth than any probe before or after—ranging from pictures of the mist-shrouded surface of Titan with its methane lakes and rivers, to the water geysers and hidden ocean of Enceladus, to the stunning beauty and complexity of the rings, to the crazy giant hexagon* on the north pole of Saturn itself.
NASA has produced a breathtaking video summary of Cassini’s journey, which I would embed here if I could find the embed code. But click here, and watch it in full screen. It’ll be the best five minutes you spent today.
Cassini has been a workhorse of stellar quality. But it’s finally running out of fuel—years after the originally planned end date of its mission—and to keep it from accidentally colliding with one of the potentially life-hosting moons, it’s going out in a blaze of glory, burning up tomorrow morning in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. It makes me sad. I wish it could have been kept in a parking orbit somewhere safe, so that some future exploration crew could have docked with it, put placards on it, and turned it into the Saturn branch of the Smithsonian, to be kept in perpetuity. But caution ruled, and rightly so, I guess. We’re looking eagerly for extraterrestrial life, and it wouldn’t do for the field to be littered with bits of Earth life. Plus, she’ll be doing science all the way in as she augers into Saturn, where she’ll melt and burn and vaporize at the end. What a way to go.
I feel kind of weepy, imagining that. But you can watch it live right here, Friday morning at 7-8:30 a.m. EDT.
Here’s a collection of some of Cassini’s greatest hits.
*Which I still maintain is a hex socket for aliens to use in opening up the top of the planet. JPL scientists insist it’s a weather system, and usually I believe them. This time, I’m not so sure.