It’s a story of awe, love, and sacrifice, and its chief actor was a 22-foot-tall computer. On September 15th, NASA’s Cassini probe deliberately dove towards Saturn, burning up in the atmosphere. As the probe hurtled towards the planet with the eyes of the world on it, it transmitted some of the most remarkable photos of its tenure.
After almost 20 years aloft, Cassini was running low on propulsion fuel, and the project’s scientists decided to pilot the probe into Saturn. Technically, Cassini’s mission didn’t have to end; even though it was out of fuel, it could have continued sending back data from its orbit around Saturn. But one of its most remarkable findings had been that there was liquid water with organic components on Saturn’s moon Enceladus.
The longer Cassini orbited without propulsion fuel, the more it risked colliding with the moon, potentially contaminating it with microbes from earth. In essence, Cassini sacrificed itself for NASA’s “Prime Directive,” the agency’s dedication not to contaminate potential life on other planets.
As Eric Maize, Cassini’s project engineer put it, “Cassini’s own discoveries were its demise.”
The probe had been navigating its way through the Saturn system since 2004, sending us back invaluable data about Saturn, its rings, and its moons.
Some of the scientists on the Cassini project have been working on it since 1988. Dr. Spilker, the mission’s project scientist, says, “When I first started working on Cassini…my oldest daughter Jennifer had just started kindergarten. And now, here we are in 2017, she’s married and she has a daughter of her own.”
Cassini’s data was well worth the wait. In its 13 years circling the Saturn system, it made some very important discoveries that “re[wrote] the textbooks of Saturn.”
To learn about Cassini’s discoveries, click ‘NEXT PAGE.’ And why not ‘SHARE’ with any science-enthusiast friends on Facebook?
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