What did Nasa learn from Cassini's 20-year mission to Saturn?

Receiving Cassini's'last breath of data from 1.5 billion kilometers away

Cassini will enter Saturn's atmosphere approximately one minute earlier, at an altitude of about 1,190 miles (1,915 kilometers) above the planet's estimated cloud tops (the altitude where the air pressure is 1-bar, equivalent to sea level on Earth). "It will radiate across the Solar System for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone", said Nasa project manager Earl Maize. "It will last not very long and I think we will all shed a tear because it's been a 30-year experience, not only with the spacecraft, but with each other", Larry said.

Are we alone? Are there other life forms out there, in the Solar System?

Why are scientists crashing the probe into Saturn?

Over the course of its 294 trips around the planet, the probe took more than 450,000 images and sent back 635 gigabytes of science data, in part while achieving more than 160 targeted flybys of Saturn's moons. Three of Saturn's moons - Tethys, above, Enceladus, second left, and Mimas, seen from the Cassini spacecraft. While there will be few dry eyes Friday, Cassini's grand finale will be especially emotional for Larry and Jason Soderblom.

How did it get to Saturn?

On Monday, the craft made a flyby of Titan that slowed it down enough to direct it toward Saturn rather than through the furthest reaches of its atmosphere, as it has been doing.

An infrared view of Saturn's moon, Titan, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft.

The final plunge will take place on the day side of Saturn, near local noon, with the spacecraft entering the atmosphere around 10 degrees north latitude.

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For a brief one or two minutes before burning up, the spacecraft will sample Saturn's ammonia-rich clouds and beam back new data about their chemical composition.

Launched on its billion-mile journey in October 1997, among the most surprising of Cassini's discoveries were salt water geysers erupting from the surface of the moon Enceladus.

"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo". "Right now we are on track for making "three-ish" teams very, very happy just in time for Christmas", said Curt Niebur of NASA Headquarters at a September 6 meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group, discussing the ongoing evaluation of New Frontiers proposals. But, because it's so far away (ten times farther from the Sun than we are) it wasn't always a realistic target for observation and experimentation.

On Thursday, the cameras took their final images of Saturn and its system.

"What Cassini really changed in the public's understanding of Saturn is just how changeable and dynamic a planet it is", she said. This did a fast fly-by in November 1980, so only gave us a glimpse of Saturn, its rings, and its moons. "It's wonderful to me even, what we were able to do right up until the end".

Although most of the spacecraft's instruments are still functioning flawlessly, its fuel tank is empty.

Both Titan and Enceladus are now considered two of the best places to search for alien life in the Solar System, and the reason why NASA made a decision to ensure that the spacecraft will, in its final act, be programmed to take a trajectory that will ensure it burns up in Saturn's upper atmosphere.

"Because of the importance of Enceladus that Cassini has shown us, and of Titan, we had to make decisions on how to dispose of the spacecraft", said Jim Green, NASA's director of planetary science.

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