On Friday, Cassini will make a forced descent into Saturn where it will officially end its 13-year mission orbiting the planet to study its moons.
University of Virginia planetary astronomer Anne Verbiscer, a participating scientist with the mission, is attending this week's end-of-mission celebration at the California Institute of Technology, near mission central - NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory - and is enjoying the final ride with hundreds of fellow Cassini scientists. NASA did not want to risk Cassini crashing into any of Saturn's moons and potentially contaminating them with microbes from Earth.
The European lander provided the high point of the mission when it successfully touched down on the surface of Titan in January 2005.
Cassini's even been sending back torrents of data as it sinks closer and closer toward its fiery doom, and will continue to do so until it bursts into flame. More importantly, Cassini's ion and neutral mass spectrometer (INMS) instrument also found that the ocean may contain nearly all the ingredients needed for life to evolve.
After four decades of planning and execution, NASA's awe-inspiring Cassini spacecraft will plunge to its death in the next 24 hours.
"We won't watch it burn up", said Maize.
"It will be completely vaporized", Maize said.
On Monday, the craft made a flyby of Titan that slowed it down enough to direct it toward Saturn rather than through the furthest reaches of its atmosphere, as it has been doing. "It would be interesting to do a survey on Cassini's impact on the arts", said Lakdawalla.
The long-lived spacecraft's fateful dive was the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings. "It's going to do that for as long as it will possibly can".
Cassini's small thrusters, created to manoeuvre the 2-ton spacecraft around the vacuum of space, will be no match for Saturn's thicker-than-expected atmosphere. Most of this data will arrive in Australia, though some will come in through the DSN antenna in Spain. "The final plunge will take place on the day side of Saturn, near local noon, with the spacecraft entering the atmosphere around 10 degrees north latitude".
"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo".
"It won't know that something bad has happened to it until it's already over", he said.
Launched in 1997, Cassini made the two billion mile journey to the second largest planet in the solar system, delivering a wealth of scientific data. "We all developed sort of a natural feeling that we were on the spacecraft", Larry said.
An image of Saturn taken from the Cassini spacecraft. For instance, a cosmic ray flung from the depths of space could impact the flight hardware, causing the system to go into safe mode and no longer transmit toward Earth.
"And now we're finding whole moons with oceans of liquid water that have been that way for 4.5 billion years".
What kind of mission will actually follow up on the curiosities Cassini has piqued?
While the crash of Cassini has been planned for months, the expressions of grief over the upcoming end of the mission are still overflowing.
Still, he expressed confidence that the mission would ride through its final hours without a problem, thanks to the Cassini team's preparation.
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