NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft Burns Up in Skies Over Saturn

By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer

A dramatic plume sprays water ice and vapor from the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Cassini’s first hint of this plume came during the spacecraft’s first close flyby of the icy moon on February 17, 2005.
Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA’s Cassini spacecraft disintegrated in the skies above Saturn early Friday in a final, fateful blaze of cosmic glory, following a remarkable journey of 20 years.

Confirmation of Cassini’s expected demise came about 7:55 a.m. EDT. That’s when radio signals from the spacecraft — its last scientific gifts to Earth — came to an abrupt halt. The radio waves went flat, and the spacecraft fell silent.

Cassini actually burned up like a meteor 83 minutes earlier as it dove through Saturn’s atmosphere, becoming one with the giant gas planet it set out in 1997 to explore. But it took that long for the news to reach Earth a billion miles away.

The only spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn, Cassini showed us the planet, its rings and moons up close in all their splendor. Perhaps most tantalizing, ocean worlds were unveiled on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbor life.

Dutiful to the end, the Cassini snapped its “last memento photos” Thursday and sampled Saturn’s atmosphere Friday morning as it made its final plunge.

Project manager Earl Maize, center, shakes hands with Bill Heventhal in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on Sept. 15, 2017, in Pasadena, Calif., after confirmation of Cassini’s demise. Cassini disintegrated in the skies above Saturn early Friday, following a remarkable journey of 20 years. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, Pool)

Program manager Earl Maize made the official pronouncement:

“This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft and you’re all an incredible team,” Maize said. “I’ll call this the end of mission.”

Flight controllers wearing matching purple shirts stood and embraced and shook hands.

More than 1,500 people, many of them past and present team members, had gathered at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for what was described as both a vigil and celebration. Even more congregated at nearby California Institute of Technology, which runs the lab for NASA.

NASA’s science mission director, Thomas Zurbuchen, made note of all the tissues inside JPL’s Mission Control, along with the customary lucky peanuts. Team members were clearly emotional, he said.

“These worlds that they found, we never knew were there, are changing how we think about life itself,” he said. “And so for me, that’s why it’s truly a civilization-scale mission, one that will stand out among other missions, anywhere.”

Flight director Julie Webster reacts in mission control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory after confirmation of Cassini’s demise on Sept. 15, 2017, in Pasadena, Calif. Cassini disintegrated in the skies above Saturn early Friday, following a remarkable journey of 20 years. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, Pool)

Project scientist Linda Spilker noted Cassini has been running “a marathon of scientific discovery” for 13 years at Saturn.

“So we’re here today to cheer as Cassini finishes that race,” she said.

The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting at more than 76,000 mph (122,000 kph). Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini’s last-gasp flash, but weren’t hopeful it would be spotted against the vast backdrop of the solar system’s second biggest planet.

This Grand Finale, as NASA called it, came about as Cassini’s fuel tank started getting low after 13 years exploring the planet. Scientists wanted to prevent Cassini from crashing into Enceladus or Titan — and contaminating those pristine worlds. And so in April, Cassini was directed into the previously unexplored gap between Saturn’s cloud tops and the rings. Twenty-two times, Cassini entered the gap and came out again. The last time was last week.

The leader of Cassini’s imaging team, Carolyn Porco, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, was so involved with the mission for so long that now, “I consider it the start of life, part two.”

In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn’s rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame. It is only one footprint in a mosaic of 33 footprints covering the entire Saturn ring system (including Saturn itself). At each footprint, images were taken in different spectral filters for a total of 323 images: some were taken for scientific purposes and some to produce a natural color mosaic. This is the only wide-angle footprint that has the Earth-moon system in it.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Cassini departed Earth in 1997 and arrived at the sixth planet from our sun in 2004. The hitchhiking European Huygens landed on big moon Titan in 2005. Nothing from Earth has landed farther. Three other spacecraft previously flew past Saturn, but Cassini was the only one to actually circle the planet.

In all, Cassini collected more than 453,000 images and traveled 4.9 billion miles. It was an international endeavor, with 27 nations taking part. The final price tag was $3.9 billion.

European space officials joined their U.S. colleagues to bid Cassini farewell.

“It’s a very historical moment,” said the Italian Space Agency’s president, Roberto Battiston.

There were lighthearted touches as well. During its broadcast NASA played a video clip of the Cassini Virtual Singers, spacecraft team members who belted out, “Tonight, tonight, we take the plunge tonight …” to the music from “West Side Story.”

Scientists are already eager to go back and delve into the wet, wild worlds of Enceladus and Titan. Proposals are under consideration by NASA, but there’s nothing official yet. In the meantime, NASA plans sometime in the 2020s to send an orbiter and lander to Europa, a moon of Jupiter believed to have a global ocean that might be compatible for life.

“Yes, we really want to go back” to Saturn, Zurbuchen said. “It’s such a wonderful system, we don’t want to leave it alone.”

Robert Picardo, an actor from TV’s old “Star Trek: Voyager” series, also contributed to Cassini’s send-off.

As Saturn advanced in its orbit toward equinox and the sun gradually moved northward on the planet, the motion of Saturn’s ring shadows and the changing colors of its atmosphere continued to transform the face of Saturn as seen by Cassini in this image from the mission’s fourth year. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Collaborating with the creative director of The Planetary Society, presto, “Le Cassini Opera” was born.

Picardo set the lyrics to the instantly recognizable aria “La Donna e mobile” from Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

While Cassini’s 20-year mission has been “a serious success,” Picardo said the opera is definitely a comedy. Here’s how it opens: “Goodbye, Cassini. Your mission’s fini. Bravo, Cassini! Have some linguini.” And on it goes, paying humorous tribute.

“No tragedy here. All good things — NASA missions, ‘Star Trek’ series, turkey and Swiss sandwiches with avocado — come to an end,” Picardo told The Associated Press.

Cassini’s program manager, Earl Maize, loves the performance.

The image was taken in visible green light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on May 21, 2015. It shows Saturn’s moon Dione crossing the face of the giant planet in this view, a phenomenon astronomers call a transit. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

“It’s very heartwarming to us,” Maize told reporters Wednesday at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

“Part of what we try to do is to extend everybody out to Saturn. It’s not science for the ivory tower. It’s for humanity, and so everybody to get on the ride, come with us, is just phenomenal.”

That was Picardo’s goal, too. A longtime fan of both space and opera, he merged those interests in “Star Trek: Voyager” as the holographic doctor who bursts into song. It seemed fitting that he celebrate Cassini in song, too. He actually got to see Cassini’s hitchhiking moon lander, the European Huygens, before it left Earth in 1997.

Estimating that he spent a mere minute on the lyrics several weeks ago, Picardo said Wednesday from Beverly Hills, California, that he sang “Le Cassini Opera” through twice. Five minutes, and that was a wrap.

“It was definitely a seat-of-the-pants production,” he said.

The image of Saturn, encircled by its retinue of rings, was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on May 4, 2014, using a spectral filter, which preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 752 nanometers.
Although all four giant planets have ring systems, Saturn’s is by far the most massive and impressive. Scientists are trying to understand why by studying how the rings have formed and how they have evolved over time.
Also seen in this image is Saturn’s famous north polar vortex and hexagon.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Picardo, who’s on the board of the Planetary Society, an advocacy group for space exploration, said he’s delighted that the opera has been so well received.

For more than a decade, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at Saturn took “a magnifying glass” to the enchanting planet, its moons and rings.

Cassini revealed wet, exotic worlds that might harbor life: the moons Enceladus and Titan. It unveiled moonlets embedded in the rings.  It also gave us front-row seats to Saturn’s changing seasons and a storm so vast that it encircled the planet.

“We’ve had an incredible 13-year journey around Saturn, returning data like a giant firehose, just flooding us with data,” said project scientist Linda Spilker with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Almost like we’ve taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings.”

Cassini streamed back new details about Saturn’s atmosphere right up until its blazing finale on Friday. Its delicate thrusters no match for the thickening atmosphere, the spacecraft tumbled out of control during its rapid plunge and burned up like a meteor over Saturn’s skies.

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