NASA’s Cassini spacecraft only has a few days left before its final approach to the giant planet Saturn. On Sept. 15, Cassini will dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, sending science data for as long as it can, and then melt and break apart.
Alexander Hayes is an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University. Hayes is available for interviews starting today, and will be at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on Friday when Cassini takes its final plunge. He says the extraordinary mission has touched us all.
“Cassini-Huygens is an extraordinary mission of discovery that has revolutionized our understanding of the outer solar system. From landing a probe on Titan’s surface and unveiling a landscape strikingly similar to our own to discovering evidence of potentially habitable deep sea hydrothermal vents in the plumes of Enceladus, Cassini has shown us again and again that there is always something new and unexpected waiting just around the corner.
“In addition to the science, Cassini is a platform for international collaboration and has acted as an incubator for a substantial portion of the outer planets science community. There are at least five generations of scientists represented on the team and, in my opinion, many of Cassini’s greatest successes have come from the teams’ capacity to encourage and facilitate young scientists to find new ways to use the instruments and work the data.
“From freshman undergraduates to emeritus faculty to citizens scientists and families watching Discovery Channel, Cassini has touched us all.”
Jonathan Lunine, the David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences at Cornell University and director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, has worked on Cassini for 34 years. Jonathan Lunine will also be at NASA’s JPL facility this week for Cassini’s demise. After two decades in space, he says the mission has shown us the way in the search for other life in this solar system.
“The end of Cassini triggers a lot of feelings for those of us who have been a part of the mission. Most of all that this is a job well done – the mission far exceeded, by any possible measure, what we hoped it would accomplish. There is also sadness: Cassini has given us so much scientific knowledge and unexpected discoveries that it’s hard to see it end.
“But there is also excitement, because Cassini has shown us the way forward in the search for other life in this solar system. Its discovery of plumes of ice and dust shooting out of the ocean moon Enceladus, for example, is like a beacon beckoning us to return.”
Maryame El Moutamid is a research associate at Cornell University. She is an expert in orbital dynamics and celestial mechanics, especially orbital resonances of satellites and exoplanets. Her current research concerns planetary ring dynamics and satellite orbital dynamics, and their connections with giant planet interior structure in the context of the Cassini/NASA mission.
El Moutamid says:
“NASA’s Cassini mission is very close to its end, after 20 years in space and 13 years in orbit about Saturn. During this period, scientists from around the world have collected data from the dozen instruments on board this amazing spacecraft and have learned a great deal about the planet itself, its rings and moons, and the connections between them.
“In April 2017, Cassini was placed in its final phase, consisting of a set of 22 highly-inclined orbits that each pass between the planet and its rings. This final phase is called the Grand Finale, and it has provided data on the planet and its rings at unprecedented resolution. But on September 15, 2017, at 4:55 am (PDT), Cassini will enter Saturn’s atmosphere to become a part of the planet itself, after burning up.”