On the 15th of September, Cassini will make one final orbit around Saturn and plummet into its atmosphere ending a 20 year, £2.2 million mission. Cassini was every astronomer, every space explorer’s dream come true. Cassini was our first look at Saturn and its beautiful rings and moons.
However, during this phase of intense discovery, it was found that a couple of Saturn’s moons have oceans of Methane and Ethane, the primary ingredients for sustaining primitive forms of life. By diving into Saturn, Cassini will protect two of Saturn’s, possible life sustaining, moons from getting contaminated by microbes from Earth. With the spacecraft running out of gas it’s absolutely necessary that Cassini is destroyed before Earth can no longer control it. So tomorrow, Cassini will die a spectacular death. Before making its final dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, Cassini will make 20 dangerous orbits between Saturn and its rings. On the 21st dive, traveling at almost 70,000 miles per hour, Cassini will enter Saturn’s atmosphere and disintegrate as the thick atmosphere of Saturn burn’s the Earth explorer during atmospheric entry. Even during its burning up in the atmosphere, Cassini will have its antennas pointed towards Earth transmitting data till the very last moment it physically can. I can imagine Cassini shouting “FOR SCIENCE” when it disintegrates.
Now that the scientific part is out of the way, here comes the human part of it, emotions. Cassini is a major life event for a lot of us. A lot of scientists at NASA have seen Cassini being built from scratch, its launch and the wonderful data it has sent back to us. To witness the death of such a machine that has taken well over 30 years of your professional life is almost certainly a painful experience. It may be a machine, sure, but to let go of such a machine is almost like watching your loved one go away. Some NASA scientists call Cassini their child and rightfully so.
The ancient Egyptians called this last exhale a “wind” that arrives to carry away a person’s soul to the afterlife.
For Cassini, the impact from falling backward through the hydrogen-thick atmosphere will tear away its parts—first the large sections, then the instruments, until the antenna pointing toward Earth sends back one final beep. This message will breeze past Jupiter and Mars, through the solar plasma pushing toward deep space, and finally run into Earth, where it will be collected in the antennas of the Deep Space Network.
Cassini will become a part of the planet that it set out to explore. Sources: nasa.gov