Today, at around 7:55 am EDT, NASA will be broadcasting the final moments of its 20-year-old Cassini spacecraft as it slams into Saturn. What a way to go. You can watch it all happen here.
Cassini will plummet into Saturn’s atmosphere and be destroyed by its force. Though, as it falls, it will send the last bout of information back to mission control regarding the chemical compounds it discovers within the atmosphere.
Thankfully, the space agency will be streaming all the live moments from inside the Jet Propulsion Laboratory mission control offering commentary on the history of Cassini and what the craft has achieved since its launch. This will surely be a hard day for the Cassini mission scientists who have been with the project since the eighties.
“It’s been part of my life for so long, this spacecraft, it’s going to be a shock to have this happen,” said Thomas Burk, a JPL engineer who has been with the Cassini mission from the beginning. “It’s bittersweet in that regard. But it’s a really exciting ending. When we stop getting data, that will be the moment of truth,” he told Vox.
The Cassini Mission
“Cassini-Huygens is one of the most ambitious missions ever launched into space,” says NASA.
Development of Cassini-Huygens began in the eighties and was named after astronomers Giovanni Cassini, the 17th century Italian who discovered four satellites of Saturn along with its rings and Christiaan Huygens, the Dutch mathematician who found Saturn's moon Titan. Launched on October 15, 1997, the craft entered orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004.
Huygens, the orbiter half of this power couple, landed on Saturn’s moon Titan in January 2005 making it the first ever landing achieved in the outer Solar System. It managed to survive 72-minutes on the surface and sent back a picture of what it saw.
Using its one high-gain and two low-gain antennas, Cassini was able to relay vital information back to mission control over the decades. Included in its findings were new moons around Saturn, lakes of methane on Titan, and jets of water erupting from Enceladus. It also made observations about the rings of Saturn, concluding that the rings of debris were similar to what formed our entire Solar System.
For a stunning visual history, check out National Geographic's infographic of Cassini's legacy.
When will we visit Saturn again?
It's not clear, but according to Director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters Jim Green, a proposal to return to Titan is currently waiting its turn within NASA's New Frontiers program, which currently has its sights set on Jupiter, Pluto and the asteroid Bennu for the next few years.
Goodbye Cassini, you will be missed.