The Cassini spacecraft successfully completed its first of 22 planned passes through the gap between Saturn and its massive ring system on Wednesday, April 26.
Now the celebrated mission headed for a deadly plunge soon is already back in contact with Earth and beaming back data for precious space research, according to NASA.
Confirmed: Cassini Is Alive And Transmitting Data
Now out of fuel after 13 long years of exploring the gas giant, Cassini is wrapping up its mission through repeatedly shooting the space between the planet and its rings, amassing a number of never-before-seen close-range data before it plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere this September.
At the auditorium of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge on Wednesday, more than 100 Cassini mission members along with their families gathered to watch the developments. The first signal came at 11:55 p.m. PT (2:55 a.m. ET Thursday), and the air was filled with cheers at the indication that the spacecraft is still alive.
In about 10 minutes, a set of signals noted that the spacecraft was beaming crucial data across over 750 million miles of space from Saturn to our planet.
"I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape,” said Cassini project manager Earl Maize in a statement, adding that prior to the mission – the closest ever to Saturn – they could only rely on predictions and previous experience with Saturn’s other rings.
Glorious History And Legacy
Launched in October 1997, Cassini “met” Saturn in July 2004 and left a lander from the European Space Agency, one that completed a parachute descent to moon Titan’s surface the following January. From there, the mission has navigated ever-evolving orbits, offered multiple Saturn and ring system flybys, and even earned two mission extensions along the way.
Cassini has emerged as one of NASA’s soundest planetary missions, but reality kicked in and showed that it has used up its propellant. Once it runs out, the vehicle will no longer be one that can be controlled.
The stakes are high for the probe to not potentially crash into the moon Enceladus, where scientists detected that a subsurface ocean may be hospitable to life. Thus, NASA officials arrived at the decision to put the spacecraft on a trajectory that will end in a mission-ending plunge into the planet’s atmosphere this Sept. 15.
Arranged with the last close-range Titan flyby, the trajectory offered experts an intimate view of Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere. Cassini’s second of 22 scheduled crossings will take place on May 2.
These dives will enable Cassini to retrieve a detailed map and information about the planet’s gravity and magnetic fields, determining its internal structure. It will also see how much material is in its rings, gather ring particle samples, and provide close-range photos of the rings and clouds.
"Cassini's up-close exploration of Titan is now behind us, but the rich volume of data the spacecraft has collected will fuel scientific study for decades to come," said Linda Spilker, mission project scientist from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
On the wee hours of Sept. 15, the mission team will gather to celebrate the 20-year mission and watch the spacecraft enter Saturn's atmosphere and burn out akin to a meteor.