Cassini Sends Final Images as It Plunges Toward Saturn

That is exactly as he and his team planned it.

Why is the Cassini mission coming to an end?

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Cassini Burns Into Saturn

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will plunge into Saturn on September 15, incinerating itself after 20 years in space.


By DENNIS OVERBYE, JONATHAN CORUM and JASON DRAKEFORD on Publish Date September 8, 2017.


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With Cassini’s fuel running low, NASA is cleaning up after itself, leaving the Saturn system as pristine as it found it. Any spacecraft, even one launched in 1997, has unwanted microbial hitchhikers aboard. In particular, planetary scientists want to ensure that there is zero chance of the spacecraft crashing and contaminating Titan or Enceladus, two moons that could be hospitable for life, with hidden passengers from Earth.

NASA did the same thing with its Galileo orbiter in 2003, sending it plunging into the clouds of Jupiter to protect Europa, another moon where scientists think life could exist.

How will the Cassini mission conclude?

The beginning of the end was Monday, when Cassini flew close to Titan, the biggest of Saturn’s moons, for the 127th time. The flybys have provided a close-up examination of an intriguing haze-shrouded world; Cassini’s navigators on Earth have also enlisted the flybys as gravitational kicks to send it to the next target.

This last flyby was “just close enough, just the right orientation to seal Cassini’s fate,” Dr. Maize said.

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From left, Cassini’s project manager, Earl Maize, Linda Spilker, project scientist, and other officials discussed the end of the mission on Wednesday at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

Credit
Robyn Beck/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The mission’s end has drawn team members, past and present, back here for a reunion, a celebration and a wake.

Some, like Robert T. Mitchell, who was the mission’s project manager from 1998 until his retirement in 2013, will be at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, close to mission control. Others will bring friends and family to a gathering at the…

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