NASA: Cassini spacecraft falls silent after plunge towards Saturn

One of the most successful space missions launched by NASA has come to an end, making the spacecraft the first ever man-made object to pass between Saturn and its rings

15 September 2017, 3:56pm
Cassini as it makes its final approach to Saturn (Photo: NASA)
Cassini as it makes its final approach to Saturn (Photo: NASA)
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has fallen silent as it plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere this morning, as it vaporised within minutes.

The end of one of NASA’s most successful missions was confirmed at just before 2pm local time, as the signal from Cassini fell silent, for the first time in over 13 years.

Cassini began its voyage back in 1997 and in its final week, the spacecraft looped between the rings of Saturn one final time, past Titan, Saturn’s giant moon, for a farewell fly-by. It then proceeded to dive into Saturn’s atmosphere at 120,000km/hr.

Within a minute, the aluminium body of the craft would have melted, with the final bits to evaporate probably being the iridium and graphite casings, which contain the probe’s 72 plutonium fuel pellets.

From NASA’s control room, the last moments could only have been imagined as the end was indicated 83 minutes after the actual event, when the signal faltered and then fell silent.

Earl Maize, Cassini program manager, told the control room: “This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft and you’re all an incredible team. I’m going to call this end of mission”.

The end to the $4bn mission was partly designed to rule out the possibility of Cassini contaminating the environment on Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan, both of which feature some of the necessary conditions for life as we know it. Cassini also captured the closest images yet, of Saturn’s rings, during its final sequence, in which it became the first ever man-made object to pass between Saturn’s rings.

Astronomer Royal, Prof Martin Rees, described the mission as one of the greatest scientific and engineering achievements in space exploration.

“Cassini has given us a cornucopia of information about Saturn, its rings and its moons,” he said. “Moreover, it carried in its cargo bay a smaller robotic probe, Huygens, built by the European Space Agency, which achieved a ‘soft landing’ on Saturn’s giant moon Titan, revealing lakes and rivers of liquid methane on that exotic world. Close flybys of a smaller moon, Enceladus, confirmed that there was an ocean under the ice – perhaps the most likely location in our solar system for life.”