NASA's Cassini spacecraft is now on course to end its 20-year mission by crashing into Saturn on Sept. 15, eliciting emotional tributes from users on various social media platforms.
The spacecraft made its 127th close brush with Titan, one of Saturn's moons, for the last time in April, before setting course for its last set of 22 orbits around the ringed planet before what is called the Cassini Grand Finale.
Say Goodbye To Cassini On Sept. 15
Cassini is the only spacecraft to have ever orbited Saturn, and it spent the previous five months exploring the massive planet and its rings. The spacecraft found that the region between Saturn and its rings are dust-free, a surprising discovery because the rings itself are primarily made up of dust particles.
The data that resulted in the discovery of the dust-free gap between Saturn and its rings is just one of the many tidbits of information that Cassini has sent back to astronomers here on Earth. Now, the spacecraft is gearing up for a crash landing on the planet that it observed so thoroughly, as it flew past Titan one final time for a gravity assist that NASA called a final kiss goodbye.
Even on its last dive, Cassini will still be doing its job, as it will sample the atmosphere of Saturn and send back data to NASA until it loses control and its signal is lost. At a speed of 76,000 miles per hour, Cassini will melt and vaporize in a moment's notice, forever melding it with Saturn.
"The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful, and it's coming to an end," said Curt Niebur, a program scientist for NASA. "I find great comfort in the fact that Cassini will continue teaching us up to the very last second."
Why Should Cassini Crash?
If Cassini has done such a great job, why has NASA decided to crash the spacecraft into Saturn?
The point of the Grand Finale is to keep Cassini away from crashing into Saturn's moons, as NASA wants to keep the conditions of Titan and Enceladus pristine for future exploration. Cassini has also accomplished its mission many times over, since it arrived at Saturn in 2004. Its fuel tank is almost empty, and it is simply time to end the $3.9 billion mission.
While the crash of Cassini has been planned for months, the expressions of grief over the upcoming end of the mission are still overflowing.
"This mission is special, and it's making it more difficult to say goodbye because it's lasted so long," said Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science Director Jonathan Lunine.