Cassini Is Dead; Long Live Cassini

The Saturn probe completes its years-long mission in a fiery descent.

By Sarah Scoles
Dec 29, 2017 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:37 AM
Cassini: NASA


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

In October 1997, a Titan rocket streaked across the sky and shot a spacecraft called Cassini toward Saturn. The road trip, minus roads, was long, and Cassini didn’t arrive until 2004. But it stayed there till its mission ended on Sept. 15, 2017 — with a bang, and a good deal of whimpering from Earth.

Early that morning, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent Cassini down to meet the planet it had spent 13 years studying. The greeting was fatal for Cassini, which disintegrated as it charged through Saturn’s atmosphere. It was a planned death, a self-sacrifice that meant it wouldn’t crash into Saturn’s moons.

Scientists didn’t want to contaminate those satellites — Titan and Enceladus — precisely because of what Cassini had revealed: They weren’t barren balls, but ones with oceans, water, internal energy and nutritious chemicals. The moons demonstrated that planets aren’t the only habitable spots in this solar system, and beyond.

Cassini’s gaze at Saturn also revealed more about the formation of giant planets and regular solar systems. “By studying those rings up close and personal, you could draw analogies to how solar systems might form and evolve,” says Scott G. Edgington, Cassini’s deputy project scientist.

“There will be generations of scientists who get their Ph.D.s and do research with Cassini data,” he says. “Who knows what they'll find in those 0s and 1s?” That’s why, despite the emotional eulogies, Cassini’s intellectual life will continue long after its physical death.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 40% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2024 Kalmbach Media Co.