NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will work hard to the very end.
Cassini will plummet into Saturn’s atmosphere early Friday morning (Sept. 15), ending its epic 13-year stint at the ringed planet with a bang. But before that happens, the probe will snap its dying image — a photograph of the precise spot where Cassini will meet its fate — send home any stored data remaining in its memory, rotate its science instruments toward Saturn’s onrushing air and its antenna toward Earth, and begin streaming real-time data back home.
Cassini’s final chapter began with its last Titan flyby, on Monday (Sept. 11), which gave the probe the nudge it needed to head toward Saturn. [ Cassini’s Saturn Crash 2017: How to Watch Its ‘Grand Finale’ ]
“The Titan flyby was just close enough and just the right orientation to seal Cassini’s fate,” Cassini program manager Earl Maize, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said during a news conference Wednesday (Sept. 13).
Following the plan
Cassini is being driven into Saturn’s atmosphere to ensure that the probe doesn’t contaminate the moons Titan and Enceladus — both of which may be capable of supporting life — with microbes from Earth. The spacecraft is nearly out of fuel, so mission managers wanted to dispose of Cassini safely while they still had control of it.
While the bulk of the commands for Cassini’s final hours were sent 10 weeks ago, a few last-minute tweaks were uploaded on Wednesday at 6:53 a.m. EDT (1053 GMT; 3:53 a.m. PDT), JPL’s Michael Staab told Space.com. As ” Cassini Ace ,” or person on point, Staab is one of the engineers who monitor and communicate with the spacecraft from the mission control room at JPL.
Today (Sept. 14) at 3:58…