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Photo via NASA/JPL (Public Domain)

NASA’s groundbreaking Cassini space craft dead after 20 years exploring Saturn

Cassini ended its 20-year mission by plunging into Saturn's atmosphere this morning.

Sep 15, 2017, 8:32 am

Internet Culture

 

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

NASA‘s Cassini spacecraft ended its 20-year mission on Friday morning, plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Cassini was an orbital probe, launched in 1997 for a seven-year journey to Saturn. Upon arrival in 2004, it spent the next 13 years studying the Saturn system, sending back images of Saturn’s rings and landing an ESA probe on its largest moon, Titan. To give you an idea of how little we knew before this mission, ESA built Cassini’s lander Huygens to act as a boat, in case Titan’s surface was covered in oceans. When it arrived, Huygens landed on a dry surface and Cassini later discovered liquid hydrocarbon lakes on the other side of the moon.

To give you an idea of how little we knew before this mission, ESA built Cassini’s lander Huygens to act as a boat, in case Titan’s surface was covered in oceans. When it arrived, Huygens landed on a dry surface and Cassini later discovered liquid hydrocarbon lakes on the other side of the moon.

On Friday, Sept. 15, Cassini completed its journey by disintegrating in Saturn’s atmosphere. This demise prevented the probe from contaminating any of Saturn’s potentially life-bearing moons. NASA celebrated the mission’s end with an extensive live-blog and video stream, which you can explore on the NASA website.

The Cassini mission represents more than one generation of work at NASA and ESA, with development beginning in the 1980s. For a long time, it was basically forgotten by the outside world, but in recent years Cassini attracted a new audience through social media.

NASA and ESA both maintain Twitter accounts for space probes like Cassini, blending educational news with lovable updates. Like the Curiosity rover on Mars, it’s easy to view Cassini as a living creature, which is part of why so many people are invested in its “death.”

NASA lost contact with Cassini in the early hours of Friday morning, but the mission lives on in the data it sent back to Earth. Cassini’s impact will inform future space exploration—and for those of us who aren’t rocket scientists, it gave us an unprecedented look at Saturn and its satellites.

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*First Published: Sep 15, 2017, 8:32 am