Published: Sun, September 17, 2017
Science | By Cecil Little

Why NASA's Cassini spacecraft matters

Why NASA's Cassini spacecraft matters

Another concept is the Enceladus Life Signatures and Habitability mission of which not much is known publically at the current time.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA designed, built and operated Cassini in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

Between April and September 2017, Cassini has undertaken a daring set of orbits that is, in many ways, like a whole new mission.

Hence, Cassini made full utilization of its lifetime, and opened various new aspects of the world to us.

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Cassini took its last mission photo at 12:58pm on Thursday - an observation of where the spacecraft would enter Saturn's atmosphere. At the time, it was called the CRAF/Cassini program with a total program cost of $1.6 billion. CRAF was cancelled. Cassini was the survivor. The spacecraft was at a distance of 774,000 kilometres from Titan when it captured the image.

Tonight, National Geographic will premiere MISSION SATURN, the documentary special highlighting Cassini's mission and its final signal back to Earth.

"When I look back at the Cassini mission, I see a mission that was running a 13-year marathon of scientific discovery, and this last orbit was just the last lap", Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker said.

It has a thick atmosphere that interacts with the surface, she says, and something very much like Earth's hydrological cycle, only with hydrocarbons instead of water.

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"This is the final chapter of an unbelievable mission, but it's also a new beginning", Zurbuchen said. Green points to NASA's competitive New Frontiers program, which is now evaluating proposals for the next in that series of missions that are cost-capped at $1 billion for development. As always, there are many more places scientists want to explore than NASA's budget can accommodate. There were fears that otherwise it might accidentally collide with one of Saturn's moons, Titan or Enceladus, and contaminate them.

The members of the Cassini mission team said the end of the spacecraft was picture flawless.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the United States' space agency, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency, whose joint mission the spacecraft had set out for 20 years ago, made a decision to let Cassini self-destruct by plunging into Saturn after it began running out of fuel.

The craft's discoveries included seasonal changes on Saturn, a hexagon-shaped pattern on the north pole and the moon Titan's resemblance to a primordial Earth.

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