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NASA looks ahead to future Saturn missions as Cassini nears its end

15 September 2017, 12:37 | Shelley Chandler

US Spacecraft Cassini Readies for Fiery Plunge Into Saturn After 13-Year Mission

This illustration by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory highlights some numbers in the final journey Cassini will take this week as it prepares to crash into Saturn on Friday

It's been NASA's plan for months, but now that it's here it's an incredibly bittersweet moment: Cassini, the spacecraft which has sent back some jaw-dropping images and data from Saturn, is currently making its final plunge towards the planet, and it won't survive the trip.

But beyond concerns about interrupting the lives of microbes, NASA and other space agencies try to take a "leave no trace" approach to space exploration when they can, opting for controlled crashes into planetary bodies when they have to park a spacecraft somewhere after a (hopefully) long mission.

With it running out of fuel, scientist have made a decision to crash it into Saturn, and expect to lose contact around lunchtime tomorrow. Mission Control will be live on YouTube, Ustream and NASA TV. It was the first mission to orbit Saturn and explore its environs in detail.

Cassini's final maneuvers begin at 0714 GMT Friday, although the signal will only reach NASA 86 minutes later.

"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager. It was the first mission that was launched to specifically study Saturn and was the first to go near enough to the planet to take detailed images since the Pioneer and Voyager crafts flew by it, several decades before it. During the spring equinox, Cassini could capture the way the sunlight hit Saturn's rings edge-on, allowing researchers to measure the summits of mountains they saw rising from the rings.

Among other things, Cassini identified a global watery ocean beneath the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus that scientists believe could harbour simple life.

"Final approach: the spacecraft is on course to dive into Saturn's atmosphere September 15", Cassini's team said in its twitter on Wednesday.

All pictures must be downlinked and the cameras switched off before the death plunge can begin.

The images Huygens sent back showed startling Earth-like features similar to rivers and shorelines. More importantly, Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer (INMS) instrument also found that the ocean may contain nearly all the ingredients needed for life to evolve. "We are going to learn even more over the next day or so".

"Cassini has given us these views that changed a lot over time", Lakdawalla said.

Cassini blasted off in October 1997 and arrived in Saturn's region of the solar system in 2004. "That's where water, because the Sun hardly shines there, should be frozen solid - and you have to have liquid water to be able to have life". This did a fast fly-by in November 1980, so only gave us a glimpse of Saturn, its rings, and its moons. "That blew our minds".

The reason NASA is destroying Cassini is because of the spacecraft's most astonishing discovery.

Her first stop would be Saturn's tiny moon Enceladus, where she would take samples of its ocean, which harbors numerous conditions needed to sustain life.

In the near term, though, numerous same researchers will be working on America's Clipper mission to Europa, a moon of Jupiter that in many ways is just a big version of Enceladus. The Cassini mission has given us answers to a lot of the outstanding questions that we had about this atmosphere - showing it to be similar to our own, with temperatures and pressures at Titan's surface meaning that methane can condense to a point where it creates clouds, and falls as rain.

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