Space exploration has always fascinated many. Maybe because of the many mysteries it holds and the impossibility for the average Joe to go out there and unravel these mysteries themselves, we can’t seem to get over our awe and wonder to any news pertaining to the deep realms of space. Well, there had been many voyages in the past and we have seen a glimpse of what’s beyond the Earth’s atmosphere but it has not fully satiated our hunger for more information simply because we know there is so much more left undiscovered. If planet Earth is the only habitable planet in the entire galaxy, it is such a waste of space after all and we can’t just shake it off our minds.
Before we can explore other galaxies, we can’t let the opportunity to pass and discover more about our neighboring planets. And among these planets are Saturn, the ringed planet. For two decades, Cassini has taught us so many things about Saturn and its many moons. All this time, scientists were able to collect valuable data and even observe seasonal changes on the planet. It has also given us hope that human life may actually be able to thrive in Saturn’s moons: Titan and Enceladus. Cassini has swung from one orbit to another and in its grand finale, showed us so much more about the planet’s interior and even changed the scientists understanding of what Saturn is really like.
After 13 years revolutionizing our understanding of the solar system, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft melted this morning during its final, fatal partial orbit into the upper reaches of Saturn.
For about a minute, running on half a hair dryer’s worth of power, the orbiter-cum-probe beamed direct measures of the planet’s atmosphere, along with final probes of its gravity and magnetic field, to mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Then, finally, its thrusters, designed for the vacuum of space, could no longer counter Saturn’s turbulence to keep its antenna in line with Earth.
“The signal from the spacecraft is gone,” said Earl Maize, Cassini’s project manager. “And in 45 seconds, so will be the spacecraft.” The spacecraft’s aluminum and carbon mylar then melted into the folds of Saturn’s elemental abyss.
The very presence of Cassini proved that global collaboration is possible during space explorations. While there have been a series of problems at the onset of the project, scientists collaborated with one another and as such, paved the way to its successful launch into space and the succeeding long life of the spacecraft that enabled us humans to learn more about this planet that is near to us yet also quite so far. And as Cassini plunged itself deeper into Saturn during its final days, more have been unraveled and will prove to be helpful for future explorations including data about its rings.
The Cassini mission was only supposed to last four years. It was extended in 2008 for another two years, and again in 2010, this time until its fuel ran out. Strange as it may sound, the plan to crash Cassini into Saturn provided an exciting opportunity. The team didn’t need to be careful with it anymore. “The engineers, who’ve been so conservative and so cautious for decades, are allowing us to use the spacecraft in ways that would just have been too dangerous, to go places we never would have been allowed—in between the rings and close to the planet’s upper atmosphere and close to the edge of the known rings—and turn the spacecraft and do maneuvers with it that never would have been allowed,” said Larry Esposito, the principal investigator of ultraviolet-imaging spectrograph, which uses ultraviolet light to create images and study gases.
“It wasn’t a death spiral,” he said. “It was a new beginning.”
Cassini has returned some strange observations from its latest orbits. Scientists are getting “almost physically impossible” readings for the dynamics of the planet’s gravitational field, which they don’t yet understand, according to one researcher.
For many of the scientists who were with Cassini from its conceptualization to the end, it was a painful goodbye but they are grateful for everything that the spacecraft has done for mankind. It is inevitable for it to lose power and all but it made sure we know so much more about Saturn before it disappeared in space. And just like that, Cassini’s signal was gone never to be heard again. But its death won’t be futile as the experts will put to good use all the wonderful images and data collected by Cassini during its long and fruitful voyage in the ringed planet.