On Friday, September 15 at approximately 4:54 a.m. PDT, after twenty years in space, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will go down in a blaze of glory.
About the size of a San Francisco MUNI bus, Cassini was launched into space in 1997 and arrived in Saturn’s orbit in 2004. Since then, it’s traveled around Saturn 294 times, delivered the Huygens lander to Titan—Saturn’s largest moon—and transmitted 635 gigabytes of data and nearly half a million photographs back to NASA. The data collected by Cassini has provided the first detailed look at Saturn’s ring system and moons (of which there are 62 that we know of) and raised questions about the possibility of life on some of the more Earth-like moons.
Cameras on the Cassini spacecraft took this photo of Saturn and its rings. Credit: NASA/JPL
However, all good things must come to an end. After considering a number of ways to end the Cassini mission, NASA scientists set the spacecraft on a kind of kamikaze path, where it will plunge toward Saturn, passing through Saturn’s atmosphere and burning up as it goes. Cassini’s cameras went dark on September 14, but its other instruments will collect and transmit data until they're knocked out of use by the heat and pressure of the atmosphere. Incinerating the spaceship prevents it from crashing into any other objects in space and passing on any microbes it may have picked up along the way, contaminating previously pristine areas of the universe.
The Exploratorium has kept a close eye on Cassini and the goldmine of data it’s transmitted over the last thirteen years—check out our overview of the mission and its discoveries and treat yourself to a series of video updates with Exploratorium scientists, recorded in the early days of Cassini’s arrival near Saturn.