Brush up on the deets of the spacecraft of the moment.
With Cassini’s cosmic career embracing a Septembral retirement date, the current hype surrounding its imminent immersion into the unknown is peaking. But, with 13 years of orbital observations under its belt, the vast wealth of sexy data, which has travelled all the way to this very page and coalesced into words, is by no means insignificant. Here are five Cassini-found facts you can nonchalantly recite, over a beer with friends…
Ginormous plumes containing elements that form the stuff of life here on earth, have been seen erupting from Saturn’s lunar satellite, Enceladus. The geysers infer hydrothermal activity, which in turn infers the possibility of life. Cassini has fearlessly torn through the plumes, using its mass spectrometer to analyse composition. The absence of certain elements has caused scepticism, but this jet of juicy gossip continues to rouse speculation.
If seen by astronomers of antiquity, the curious ‘Tiger’s Stripes’ on Enceladus would have no doubt been attributed to the claws of some constellate beast. We now know these marks are actually layers of ice, so thin the subterranean oceanic qualities of Enceladus are revealed. This confirms the icy moon’s status as an object for further investigation, with a potential mission lined up for a 2021.
The Cassini mission has provided extra data to support heliosphere measurements made by the two Voyager spacecraft and NASA’s Interstellar Boundary Explorer (IBEX). The new data suggests the heliosphere, created by our sun’s magnetic field, may actually be a rounded system, as opposed to the depiction originally agreed upon, which included a ‘heliotail’.
4.Put a ring on it
Galileo was the first to see Saturn’s celebrated rings, that fateful day in 1610, when he cast a telescope to the mystical heavens. From a 17th century vantage point, with 17th century technology, Galileo’s layman recital of his observations, were of a planet with ‘ears’. Now, we know those ‘ears’ are in fact rings, composed of compact snowballs and debris. Sure, Cassini didn’t break this news, but the flavour of the month has reported spectacular findings. (N.B. It was the Dutch astronomer, Christiaan Huygens, who correctly identified Saturn’s orbiting ornaments… which brings us to our next point.)
Finally, our little trooper didn’t venture completely alone. Cassini had a payload, which was delivered to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. On 14th January 2005, Huygens left Cassini, and successfully entered Titan's upper atmosphere, descending by parachute to the surface. Huygens ceased to operate 70 minutes after landing, but the arrival marks a crucial milestone in space exploration; Titan is the farthest world any earthling-made technology has had the privilege to touch down upon.
What Saturn’s techno-satellite’s final months mean.
The Cassini spacecraft has been conducting cosmic espionage and revealing Saturnian secrets, since arriving at its orbital destination, in 2004.
Most recently, the NASA-ESA-ASI technical spectacle dove between the rings and planetary body of our celestial ‘hood’s Jovian jewel, sauntering past at a casual 70, 000mph, just 1, 900 miles from the planet itself. The bold nosedive is the first of its kind and marks the beginning of Cassini’s 22-orbit grand finale, which will culminate in all new data for everyone (yay!), before its sacrificial plunge into Saturn’s hydrogen-rich atmosphere in September 2017 (wahhhh).
But, Cassini aint no newbie. The tenacious space probe has been delivering the goods for the past 13 years and, in honour of its nigh-internet-breaking moment in the spotlight, (the Twittersphere has been blowing up with animations, raw images, and real-time updates), we’re celebrating the aeronautical achievement , before its demise in the skies, later this year.
Although all eyes are on the hypnotic robotic RN, the intrepid solar system surveyor’s mission has indeed been fruitful, fascinating, and – in some cases – fantastical (is there life on Enceladus 👀 ?). Thus, it’s imminent collision is decidedly heart-breaking, but a tantalising frontier of new data and unprecedented exploration awaits. From an up-close-and-personal peek at the dense ammonia cloud tops (which will be seen 10x closer than ever before), to the precious 60 seconds of communication that will follow Cassini’s nip behind Saturn’s atmospheric curtain, before the spacecraft’s ability to return signals home is lost forever, the final months of this unique mission are set to be an emotional rollercoaster.
While Voyager 1 and 2 surge through interstellar space (currently at 138 and 113 AU, respectively, from home), we’ve ticked off lunar landings, Martian meanderings, jaunts around Jupiter, and unprecedented Saturnian surveillance. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that, with each new mission, we are not only going further than ever before, we’re also forming deeper understandings than ever before.
If nothing else, one of the most profound extrapolations of all cosmic voyages made insofar, is that none of it would have been possible without a combined humanitarian effort, and the successful understanding, application, and cooperation of the unerring laws of physics. This respect for, and utility of, natural science, has provided yet another stepping stone into what was once the unknown.