On Friday, September 15th, NASA scientists celebrated a huge milestone in space exploration and also took some time to mourn the loss of an old friend, the Cassini spacecraft. This was one of the most talked about events on the internet that day, but why? What did Cassini do for science? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.
The uncontested celestial lord of the rings, Saturn, is over 740 million miles away from Earth and we are no where near ready to send a human crew that far, so our robotic explorers are the go-to choice for gaining more information for deep space exploration.
The Cassini mission was launched in 1997 and since then has been keep astronomers on their toes with a plethora of remarkable findings and accomplishments. So, what exactly did this spacecraft get done 2 decades?
Quite a bit actually. From 1997 to last week, Cassini was operational and working as an instrument of discovery for the thousands of hard working men and women in the science field. If staffing indicates the importance of a project then we should mention the fact that the Cassini mission involved the work of over 5,000 people. Many individuals were needed to keep this amazing project on track, up to date, and to allow the public to get access to some of the mind bending science that this craft was sent into space to document.
For starters, Cassini took over 453,000 photos of the Saturn system. Some of the most remarkable photos of the planet, strange storms, moons, rings, and beyond were all a regular part of the Cassini data that had NASA pumped up for over a decade! It also did 162 targeted flybys of Saturn’s moons. A lot of information on these moons came for the first time thanks to this solitary distant traveler. Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of this trip was Enceladus. It tested and flew through the geysers erupting from Enceladus and now we know, that’s liquid water there folks! Cassini is even responsible for identifying 6 named moon discoveries.
In addition to new information about the moons, it also collected 635 GB of data from the trip all together. This spacecraft also helped produced content for 3,948 scientific papers which were published. Even more will come as a result of this because the data from this mission will require decades to go through and this means even more science journal publications as a result.
There were some pretty breath taking moments in the mission as Cassini dove in and out of the rings of Saturn. Here on Earth, it brought 27 nations together that participated in this research. No wonder this mission was such a big deal to the science community. It required so many bright minds to plan and execute.
As scientists approached the end of the mission planning they had to keep in mind that we must be good stewards of the unknown. In order to prevent contaminating any of those isolated and precious worlds, Cassini finally ended its mission as it dove into the cloudy cover of Saturn and burned up in its atmosphere.
Clearly this mission has a lot of scientists worked up. If you see some hardcore Cassini fans in mourning, for the time being please be sure to give them some space.