On Wednesday, April 26, Google’s homepage featured an animated doodle showing the Cassini spacecraft personified as a jolly triangular photographer taking pictures of a passing smiling Saturn, paparazzi-style. Designed by Nate Swinehart, the fun doodle was to put up to mark the beginning of the ‘Grand Finale’ of the spacecraft’s journey of two decades. On Wednesday, the Cassini started taking photos and measurements between Saturn and its rings, making the first of a series of orbits to help scientists gain more insight on the nature and origin of the planet’s rings.
A mission of exciting discovery
The landmark Saturn mission is a NASA project with backing from the Italian space agency (ASI) and the European Space Agency (ESP). The Cassini’s 2.2 billion mile journey began 20 years ago from Cape Canaveral in the United States in 1997, when the spacecraft left Earth on its way to our solar system’s second largest planet. The spacecraft reached Saturn 7 years later in 2014, when it began exploring around the planet and its satellites.
Over the years, numerous remarkable discoveries have been made and astonishing photos have been compiled into a stunning collection, including a picture of our tiny planet taken through Saturn’s rings. Early in April, when Cassini was exploring one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, it discovered the presence of molecular hydrogen, suggesting that the planet could support extraterrestrial life.
A glorious tragedy
Running out of rocket fuel, the Cassini spacecraft will plunge to its death on the 15th of September, 2017, ending its historic journey. NASA has to destroy the craft to avoid letting debris and microbes from Earth contaminate Saturn’s moons (Enceladus and Titan), cause disruption to whatever may exist there, or prevent us from finding out about the possible existence of extraterrestrial life. When the spacecraft dives into Saturn’s atmosphere, it will have many of its instruments on to ensure it keeps transmitting to Earth until the moment it burns up and gets destroyed. Before its final moment, Cassini will tell us what the planet’s atmosphere is comprised of.
Once it embarked on the first of 22 orbits around Saturn, the Cassini began a journey of no return as its path is not determined by thrusters anymore, but largely by the effects of gravity. No matter what the scientists at NASA do, the spacecraft will inevitably end up in Saturn’s atmosphere on said date.
It will be sad to see the Cassini go after seeing two decades of the phenomenal service it has rendered to science, expanding our knowledge and deepening our understanding of Saturn and its satellites. Nonetheless, it is a glorious ending to an astonishing journey of discovery.