This week, the 20-year journey of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will come to a fiery, blazing end. Cassini launched in 1997 and entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004. Since then it has made some incredible discoveries and provided us with unparalleled images of the foreign gas giant and its moons. In April this year, Cassini began its ‘grand finale’ where its project mission scientists set out to guide the two-storey spacecraft in a series of 22 dives between Saturn and its rings. The final plunge will happen September 15, with Cassini diving directly and disintegrate into the planet it has studied so closely for over a decade.
You can read more about Cassini’s grand finale in our April blog post here. In celebration of the 22 incredible dives the spacecraft has recently undertaken, we have compiled a list of 22 facts and discoveries about the incredible mission.
- Cassini is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn
- Huygens, was a companion spacecraft, whose journey ended in a soft landing in 2004 on Jupiter’s moon Titan
- The mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency
- The spacecraft is named after Giovanni Domenico Cassini, an Italian astronomer
- Cassini unveiled that Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, appears to have a landscape which strongly resembles that of Earth, with features including, clouds, rain, lakes and mountains
- It has collected 635 GB of science data
- During its final descent into the planet, Cassini will continue to transmit information back to Earth before it burns up in the atmosphere
- It weighs roughly about 5,650 kgs, more than half of which is rocket fuel
- Cassini discovered that Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, has jets of ice crystals and liquid water beneath the surface
- These hydrothermal discoveries on Enceladus means it appears to have all the necessary components for the formation of life; water, food (methane gas), and heat
- Cassini has travelled 7.9 billion kilometres since launch
- It has taken 453,048 images
- Some of these images were of lightning on Saturn in 2009 allowing scientists put together the first video of lightning discharging on another planet
- Cassini discovered that Lapetu, another moon, features a contrasting combination of both dark and light patches, giving it a ‘yin-yang’ effect
- This ‘yin-yang’ effect was discovered to be as a result of dark dust in its orbital path landing on the surface of the moon.
- 2.5 million commands have been executed
- Cassini is plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, to ensure that it cannot contaminate any future studies of habitability and potential life on one of Saturn’s moons
- It is about the same size as a 30-passenger school bus
- Cassini uses plutonium as a power source because Saturn is too far from the Sun
- It went past Venus (twice!), Earth and Jupiter to get a speed boost by taking advantage of each planet’s gravity before reaching Saturn
- The total cost of Cassini was $3.27 billion, with the US paying 80% of the cost
- The length of the mission has enabled us to observe weather and seasonal changes on Saturn. Among one of the most amazing changes Cassini captured was the eruption of a once-every-30-years storm
We will miss you Cassini!
Images at top L-R: The North Pole on Enceladus; a close up of small particles in Saturn’s rings; a view of Earth as a tiny speck between Saturn’s rings. Image above: the Cassini Team. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute