NASA Scientists Reconstruct Cassini’s Final Plunge Into Saturn

Posted: Oct 13 2017, 4:03am CDT | by , Updated: Oct 13 2017, 4:07am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
NASA Scientists Reconstruct Cassini’s Final Plunge into Saturn
Credit: NASA/JPL

Cassini spacecraft departed Earth in 1997 and it took it almost seven years to reach Saturn

NASA’s Cassini mission came to an epic end last month when the spacecraft made it final death dive into Saturn’s atmosphere and burned up like a meteor. Cassini transmitted data until the very last seconds and reached the region where no spacecraft has gone before.

During the final moments of its plunge, the spacecraft was live-streaming data from eight of its science in instruments. Using the data, researchers are trying to get a better idea of how the spacecraft itself behaved as it went in. The data will be used to evaluate models of Saturn's atmosphere and help provide a baseline for future missions to the planet.

“Given that Cassini wasn't designed to fly into a planetary atmosphere, it's remarkable that the spacecraft held on as long as it did, allowing its science instruments to send back data to the last second," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. "It was a solidly built craft, and it did everything we asked of it."

Launched in 1997, the Cassini spacecraft spent the past thirteen years studying the planet, its rings and moons in unprecedented detail. While orbiting Saturn hundreds of times, Cassini made numerous dramatic discoveries, such as the liquid methane seas on the planet biggest moon Titan and a subsurface ocean beneath small Saturn moon Enceladus. The mission has changed the way we think about the planet and the entire solar system.

In 2010, Cassini was given a seven-year mission extension, which led to the Grand Finale – a series of final 22 dives through a gap between Saturn and its rings, followed by a plunge into the planet’s atmosphere.

Data show that as Cassini began its final approach, it was subtly rocked back and forth. While the gravitational nudge from Saturn was trying to rotate the spacecraft, its thrusters were gently pulsing every few minutes to keep its antenna pointed at Earth. Cassini was correcting its orientation in this way until about three minutes before signals were lost and the spacecraft became silent.

"To keep the antenna pointed at Earth, we used what's called 'bang-bang control,'" said Julie Webster, Cassini's spacecraft operations chief at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We give the spacecraft a narrow range over which it can rotate, and when it bangs up against that limit in one direction, it fires a thruster to tip back the other way."

Cassini wasn't the first NASA spacecraft to study Saturn. Pioneer 11(1979), Voyager 1 (1980) and Voyager 2 (1981) had also been sent to Saturn earlier, but Cassini was the only spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn and showed us the planet, its rings and its moons up close in all their splendor.

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