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.