Gallery: Controllers receive last signals before Cassini spacecraft demise
PASADENA, Calif. — With its fuel nearly depleted, Cassini made a final plunge toward Saturn to get as much science as possible before burning up in the planet’s atmosphere. Flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) lost telemetry with the spacecraft, as expected, at about 7:55 a.m. EDT (11:55 GMT) Sept. 15, 2017.
The Cassini-Huygens mission spanned nearly 30 years with conceptual work starting in the early 1980s. The spacecraft was built and finally launched on Oct. 15, 1997. After traveling for nearly seven years, the spacecraft entered orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004.
Orbiting the planet for 13 years, Cassini gathered information about the ringed world’s moons as well as the planet itself.
“It’s a bittersweet, but fond, farewell to a mission that leaves behind an incredible wealth of discoveries that have changed our view of Saturn and our Solar System, and will continue to shape future missions and research,” said Michael Watkins, director of JPL, which built and managed the Cassini mission.
It was decided to plunge the spacecraft into the atmosphere of Saturn to both protect the moons Titan and Enceladus from contamination resulting from a potential collision with the probe after it runs out of fuel, and to get as much science out of the vehicle as possible. The beginning of the end officially started in April 2017 when a flyby of Titan altered Cassini’s orbit to begin a series of 22 “Grand Finale” dives into the gap between the rings and planet. The final of these orbits ended in the planet’s atmosphere.
“The Cassini operations team did an absolutely stellar job guiding the spacecraft to its noble end,” said Earl Maize, Cassini’s project manager at JPL. “From designing the trajectory seven years ago, to navigating through the 22 nail-biting plunges between Saturn and its rings, this is a crack shot group of scientists and engineers that scripted a fitting end to a great mission. What a way to go. Truly a blaze of glory.”
The following are NASA images of Cassini’s flight controllers monitoring the final signals received from the spacecraft. While the probe entered the atmosphere at about 6:31 a.m. EDT (10:31 GMT), it took about 83 minutes for the data, traveling at the speed of light, to reach the Deep Space Network on Earth.