Space & Science

The Last Days of Cassini Huygens

Source: NASA

The Cassini Orbiter was launched from Cape Canaveral in October 1997, as a cooperative project of NASA, European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. Named after the 17th Century renowned astronomer Giovanni Cassini and eminent mathematician and physicist Christian Huygens, this spacecraft’s objectives were to determine the 3D structure and behavior of the Saturn rings, composition of its satellite Titan’s surface and clouds, dynamic behavior of Saturn’s atmosphere at cloud level and more about the hazes and scale of the satellite.

Cassini’s final stage of entering the inner orbit of Saturn. Photo Source: NASA

Initially, the Cassini Huygens mission was called “Saturn Orbiter Titan Probe” and later came to be known as a flagship class mission to the outer planets which also included Galileo, Voyager and Viking within the periphery of its mission. After almost 20 years of its presence in space, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is said to commence the concluding chapter of its remarkable journey of cosmological exploration. It is set to determine dynamic scientific discoveries at a rapid pace. NASA reported that previously, Cassini had observed spurts of water amalgamated with organic chemicals flowing from “Enceladus” (the 6th largest moon of Saturn). This generated a buzz on the presence of a key life ingredient: hydrogen, which made scientists anticipate the existence of geothermal geysers on the satellite’s ocean floor, envisaging probability of a habitable environment on the celestial body.

Picture of titan taken by Cassini. A water body satellite where there could be a potential life. Source: NASA

At present, the spacecraft is said to embark on a daring series of orbits where Cassini seeks to closely pass through Saturn’s upper atmosphere, with its last five orbits around the planet. This is an absolutely new zone of exploration where no spacecraft has navigated before and was planned to operate between April and September 2017. It is estimated that Cassini’s entry into the inner rings of Saturn and its possibility of measuring the same with mass Spectrometer, will aid in determining the bulk of the rings. This unique mission and its discovery will trace the trajectory of understanding how giant planetary systems form and evolve. However, Cassini’s “Grand Finale” has more weight-age than its planned dramatic plunge into Saturn and is expected to add a glorious chapter in its long drawn thrilling expedition. The spacecraft’s aim is to reveal the planet’s internal structure, where the final dives would provide an enhanced understanding of the origins of the rings. Scientists, plan to capture ultra-close images of these clouds and rings. If Cassini doesn’t dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, there is potential risk of the spacecraft contaminating one of the planet’s own satellites with “debris and microbes from the Earth.” On April 12, Cassini captured incredible images of the Earth shining through Saturn’s rings, unmasking our planet as a tiny bright dot in the obscurity of space.

The grand finale orbits of Cassini Huygens around Saturn. Source NASA.

While so far the Cassini Huygens mission has made several achievements, its final plunge is expected to streak a spectacular end for one of the paramount scientific findings undertaken in our solar system so far. An expert team of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory stationed in California expressed their confidence on models that well predict the spacecraft’s expected behavior at atmospheric densities. The first of the five phase passage of Cassini over Saturn is predicted at 12:22 am ETD on Monday, August 14, where the spacecraft will be closest to Saturn’s cloud tops between 1,010 and 1,060 miles. It is projected to experience a dense atmosphere where the spacecraft will have to use its smaller rocket ‘thrusters’ to maintain stability. Researchers believe that in September, a distant encounter with Saturn’s Titan will “serve as a gravitational version of a large pop-down man-oeuvre, slowing Cassini’s orbit around Saturn and bending its path slightly to send the spacecraft towards its Sept. 15 plunge into the planet.” It is noted by scientists that once Cassini reaches this point, its ‘thrusters ‘ could stop working against Saturn’s atmospheric push to keep the antenna of the spacecraft pointed towards the Earth, resulting in permanent loss of contact. At this juncture Cassini is expected to break up like meteors; forever culminating its 20 yearlong stellar journey.

As once said by the poet “Dylan Thomas” -“Do not go gentle into that good night, Cassini Huygens”.

 Article by Rochita.

The Last Days of Cassini Huygens


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