Cassini spacecraft coming to a fiery end on Saturn

THE END IS NIGH: Cassini has given sterling service but after 20 years, it's about to come to a fiery end.
THE END IS NIGH: Cassini has given sterling service but after 20 years, it's about to come to a fiery end.

As I write it’s anticipated. When you read this it’ll probably be fact. The most complex and successful planetary mission of all time, Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft, will have crashed into the giant ringed world Saturn, where Spring lasts for seven years.

 It’s a planned kamikaze drop to avoid the spacecraft one day colliding with any of Saturn’s 60 plus moons that may contain basic life. When the Cassini spacecraft hurtles at 111,000 km/h through Saturn’s mysterious rings and into the planet’s hydrogen and ice atmosphere this Friday, NASA mission control will be ready and set to record history.

They’ll be relying on the deep space antenna in Canberra to handle the historic finale to a 7.8 billion kilometre voyage. CSIRO’s team at the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex will capture the final nine hours of signals from Cassini until it plunges into Saturn, 20 years after the date of its launch from Cape Canaveral.

The team will be saying goodbye to a constant friend after decades of receiving new information. The Cassini spacecraft spent 13 years orbiting Saturn. It revealed the planet and its rings in striking detail, found liquid around every corner, and invigorated the idea that alien life not only exists, but could be right on our doorstep.

Launched on October 15, 1997, Cassini travelled for six years before reaching Saturn. The sixth planet lies an average of 1.5 billion kilometres from Earth. Cassini flew via the scenic route orbiting the sun to fly by Venus twice, then Earth, then to a gravity assist manoeuvre at Jupiter before reaching its destination. They call it the ‘sling-shot effect.’

The craft has been orbiting the ringed planet since July 1, 2004, studying Saturn's fascinating moons, tiny ring particles, and turbulent atmospheric storms, including a massive hexagonal swirling storm at the north pole that could swallow the Earth whole! The data signals take over 80 minutes to reach earth at the speed of light!

Finally another historic moment was reached on August 21 as over a billion people, directly and online, watched what was billed as the Great American Eclipse. It was the first time in 99 years a solar eclipse crossed the USA and lived up to its reputation as the most watched sky event in history.

I was there, in Wyoming, heading an international tour as a guide and lecturer. Out of the six I’ve seen this was the most dramatic. At totality it became so dark torches were needed, we saw planets and stars in the sky and the temperature dropped 12 degrees in one minute. Flowers began to close up thinking it was night. Can’t wait for the next one.