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Cassini: A Life Well Lived

Cry because it's over, smile because it happened.

Sep 14, 2017 8:30 PMNov 20, 2019 10:00 PM


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Photo Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This false-color image gives an up-close view of the massive hurricane that sits at Saturn's north pole.

The picture was taken in near-infrared, and the green shows higher cloud tops, while the red depicts lower elevations.

The hurricane is estimated to be about 1250 miles across, and the winds there churn at around 330 miles per hour. Cassini was the first mission to return detailed images of Saturn's poles, which will help scientists to describe how weather patterns there move and give insights into the planet's composition.

Photo Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This image shows a cosmic bounty: Saturn, its rings, Earth and the Moon all appear together. The arrow points to the Earth, while the Moon is barely visible as a faint bulge on its right side.

Cassini is nearly 900 million miles away in this photograph, taken in 2013. It is only the third time Earth has been photographed from the outer solar system, according to NASA.

Photo Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini also released the Huygens probe, which parachuted to the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. The view seen here was snapped on its way down to the surface.

On the way down, the lander spotted drainage channels indicating the presence of liquids at some point in Titan's history, as well as evidence that large lakes once existed there. Further imaging by Cassini confirmed that liquid hydrocarbon lakes exist at the poles.

Huygens' landing marks the furthest that we've ever sent a probe to touch down on another world. It operated for about ninety minutes before shutting off.

Photo Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Encaledus was discovered to have a subsurface ocean in addition to hydrothermal plumes as a result of Cassini's measurements of the planet.

The ice crust is estimated to be 11 to 14 miles thick on average, but likely thins toward the south pole, where evidence of the plumes can be found.

Researchers hypothesize that life on Earth first originated in such plumes, making their presence on another planet a prime location to search for extraterrestrial activity.

Photo Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini dove 22 times between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission's "Grand Finale," as depicted here in this illustration.

The daring maneuver began in April, and researchers initially had no idea how the spacecraft would fare in the roughly 1200-mile gap.

Thankfully, each dive went off without a hitch, and saw the spacecraft dip to within about 1000 miles of the planet's atmosphere, gathering new and important data every time.

Photo Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

On Friday, September 15 at 7:54 AM Eastern time, the Cassini spacecraft will end its 13-year residence at Saturn with a final, deadly plunge into the ringed planet's atmosphere. Over the course of its mission Cassini has revealed oceans on two moons, observed seasonal changes on Saturn, picked up on hydrothermal vents beneath moon Enceladus and returned thousands of stunning images from its rarefied orbit.

The death dive ensures that there is no chance of the probe crashing into Enceladus and potentially contaminating it with Earthly microbes. The plunge will also give researchers a chance to obtain last-minute measurements of Saturn's atmosphere never-before attempted.

The craft has traveled some 5 billion miles within the Saturn system and returned over 600 gigabytes of data. The initial four-year mission was extended twice, but the craft's fuel has finally been depleted, marking the ultimate end of its life.

Cassini has opened our eyes anew to the sixth planet and opened dozens of avenues for future research, in addition to revealing the most promising location for extraterrestrial life in the solar system — the plumes of Enceladus.

Cassini: Gone, but not forgotten.

Photo Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Daphne, another moon that lives inside the rings, has cleared a path for itself inside the A ring.

Though only five miles across, its gravitational pull is enough to sweep particles from the ring into tiny wave-like curls as it passes.

Photo Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Five of Saturn's moon are visible in this image. They are, from left: Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea.

Saturn actually holds 53 confirmed moons in its gravitational sway, and eight more may be added. By itself, Cassini added six moons to the total, and paid a visit to more than 20 of them.

Some even orbit inside the rings, as is the case with tiny Pandora, which orbits between the outer A and F rings.

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