Tomorrow one of the most prolific and beloved spacecraft missions will come to an end when the Cassini spacecraft makes its final plunge into Saturn. After nearly 20 years in space and 13 years orbiting Saturn, the Cassini mission is close to running out of fuel. To prevent the craft from contaminating one of Saturn’s moons – which its mission revealed may harbor the ingredients for life – mission operators are instead sending it on a fatal dive into the gas giant.
Cassini has and will continue to provide a trove of scientific insights about Saturn and its environs. It has given us front-row seats to a storm that wrapped around the entire planet. It shed new light on Saturn’s spectacular hexagonal polar vortex and showed us the beauty of auroras on other planets. Cassini also showed us that Saturn’s moon Titan has stable hydrocarbon lakes at its surface, fed by methane rains and driven by processes unfamiliar to terrestrial ones. It also gave us paths for future exploration by documenting plumes of water ejected from Enceladus’ icebound oceans.
Cassini also holds a special place in my heart. It launched while I was in middle school, reached Jupiter while I was in college, and collected data throughout my postgraduate research career. It was an inspiration for my undergraduate spacecraft mission design projects, and it provided fun and exciting fluid dynamical discoveries throughout my time writing FYFD. It’s my favorite mission (sorry, Mars rovers, New Horizons, Dawn, and Juno!) and likely to remain so for years to come.
So thank you, Cassini, and many thanks to all the scientists, engineers, and operators who’ve worked on the mission during the decades from its conception to completion. You did a hell of a job. Godspeed, Cassini! (Photo credits: NASA/JPL)
P.S. – Tonight I’ll be helping kick off the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. You can tune into the live webcast here. The ceremony officially starts at 6 PM Eastern time, but I recommend tuning in early, especially if you want to catch my full spiel. – Nicole