On September 15th, 2017, after nearly 20 years in service, the Cassini spacecraft ended its mission by plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn. During the 13 years it spent in the Saturn system, this probe revealed a great deal about the gas giant, its rings, and its systems of moons. As such, it was a bittersweet moment for the mission team when the probe concluded its Grand Finale and began descending into Saturn’s atmosphere.
Even though the mission has concluded, scientists are still busy poring over the data sent back by the probe. These include a mosaic of the final images snapped by Cassini’s cameras, which show the location of where it would enter Saturn’s atmosphere just hours later. The exact spot (shown above) is indicated by a white oval, which was on Saturn’s night side at the time, but would later come around to be facing the Sun.
From the beginning, the Cassini mission was a game-changer. After reaching the Saturn system on July 1st, 2004, the probe began a series of orbits around Saturn that allowed it conduct close flybys of several of its moons. Foremost among these were Saturn’s largest moon Titan and its icy moon Enceladus, both of which proved to be a treasure trove of scientific data.
On Titan, Cassini revealed evidence of methane lakes and seas, the existence of a methanogenic cycle (similar to Earth’s hydrological cycle), and the presence of organic molecules and prebiotic chemistry. On Enceladus, Cassini examined the mysterious plumes emanating from its southern pole, revealing that they extended all the way to the moon’s interior ocean and contained organic molecules and hydrated minerals.
These findings have inspired a number of proposals for future robotic missions to explore Titan and Enceladus more closely. So far, proposals range from exploring Titan’s surface and atmosphere using lightweight aerial platforms, balloons and landers, or a dual quadcopter. Other proposals include exploring its seas using a paddleboat or a even a submarine. And alongside Europa, there are scientists clamoring for a mission to Enceladus and other “Ocean Worlds” to explore its plumes and maybe even its interior ocean.
Beyond that, Cassini also revealed a great deal about Saturn’s atmosphere, which included the persistent hexagonal storm that exists around the planet’s north pole. During its Grand Finale, where it made 22 orbits between Saturn and its rings, the probe also revealed a great deal about the three-dimensional structure and dynamic behavior of the planet’s famous system of rings.
It is only fitting then that the Cassini probe would also capture images of the very spot where its mission would end. The images were taken by Cassini’s wide-angle camera on Sept. 14th, 2017, when the probe was at a distance of about 634,000 km (394,000 mi) from Saturn. They were taken using red, green and blue spectral filters, which were then combined to show the scene in near-natural color.
The resulting image is not dissimilar from another mosaic that was released on September 15th, 2017, to mark the end of the Cassini mission. This mosaic was created using data obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, which also showed the exact location where the spacecraft would enter the atmosphere – 9.4 degrees north latitude by 53 degrees west longitude.
The main difference, of course, is that this latest mosaic benefits from the addition of color, which provides a better sense of orientation. And for those who are missing the Cassini mission and its regular flow of scientific discoveries, its much more emotionally fitting! While we may never be able to find the wreckage buried inside Saturn’s atmosphere, it is good to know where its last known location was.
During the 13 years and 76 days that the Cassini mission spent around Saturn, the orbiter and its lander (the Huygens probe) revealed a great deal about Saturn and its systems of moons. This is especially true of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and one of the most mysterious objects in the Solar System. As a result of Cassini’s many flybys, scientists learned a great deal about Titan’s methane lakes, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, and surface features.
Even though Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15th, 2017, scientists are still pouring over the things it revealed. For instance, before it ended its mission, Cassini captured an image of a strange cloud floating high above Titan’s south pole, one which is composed of toxic, hybrid ice particles. This discovery is another indication of the complex organic chemistry occurring in Titan’s atmosphere and on it’s surface.
Since this cloud was invisible to the naked eye, it was only observable thanks to Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS). This instrument spotted the cloud at an altitude of about 160 to 210 km (100 to 130 mi), far above the methane rain clouds of Titan’s troposphere. It also covered a large area near the south pole, between 75° and 85° south latitude.
Using the chemical fingerprint obtained by the CIRS instrument, NASA researchers also conducted laboratory experiments to reconstruct the chemical composition of the cloud. These experiments determined that the cloud was composed of the organic molecules hydrogen cyanide and benzene. These two chemicals appeared to have condensed together to form ice particles, rather than being layered on top of each other.
For those who have spent more than the past decade studying Titan’s atmosphere, this was a rather interesting and unexpected find. As Carrie Anderson, a CIRS co-investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a recent NASA press statement:
“This cloud represents a new chemical formula of ice in Titan’s atmosphere. What’s interesting is that this noxious ice is made of two molecules that condensed together out of a rich mixture of gases at the south pole.”
The presence of this cloud around Titan’s southern pole is also another example of the moon’s global circulation patterns. This involves currents of warm gases being sent from the hemisphere that is experiencing summer to the hemisphere experience winter. This pattern reverse direction when the seasons change, which leads to a buildup of clouds around whichever pole is experiencing winter.
When the Cassini orbiter arrived at Saturn in 20o4, Titan’s northern hemisphere was experiencing winter – which began in 2004. This was evidenced by the buildup of clouds around its north pole, which Cassini spotted during its first encounter with the moon later than same year. Similarly, the same phenomena was taking place around the south pole near the end of Cassini’s mission.
This was consistent with seasonal changes on Titan, which take place roughly every seven Earth years – a year on Titan lasts about 29.5 Earth years. Typically, the clouds that form in Titan’s atmosphere are structured in layers, where different types of gas will condense into icy clouds at different altitudes. Which ones condense is dependent on how much vapor is present and temperatures – which become steadily colder closer to the surface.
However, at times, different types of clouds can form over a range of altitudes, or co-condense with other types of clouds. This certainly appeared to be the case when it came to the large cloud of hydrogen cyanide and benzene that was spotted above the south pole. Evidence of this cloud was derived from three sets of Titan observations made with the CIRS instrument, which took place between July and November of 2015.
The CIRS instrument works by separating infrared light into its constituent colors, and then measures the strengths of these signals at the different wavelengths to determine the presence of chemical signatures. Previously, it was used to identify the presence of hydrogen cyanide ice clouds over the south pole, as well as other toxic chemicals in the moon’s stratosphere.
As F. Michael Flasar, the CIRS principal investigator at Goddard, said:
“CIRS acts as a remote-sensing thermometer and as a chemical probe, picking out the heat radiation emitted by individual gases in an atmosphere. And the instrument does it all remotely, while passing by a planet or moon.”
However, when examining the observation data for chemical “fingerprints”, Anderson and her colleagues noticed that the spectral signatures of the icy cloud did not match those of any individual chemical. To address this, the team began conducting laboratory experiments where mixtures of gases were condensed in a chamber that simulated conditions in Titan’s stratosphere.
After testing different pairs of chemicals, they finally found one which matched the infrared signature observed by CIRS. At first, they tried letting one gas condense before the other, but found that the best results were obtained when both gases were introduced and allowed to condense at the same time. To be fair, this was not the first time that Anderson and her colleagues had discovered co-condensed ice in CIRS data.
For example, similar observations were made near the north pole in 2005, about two years after the northern hemisphere experienced its winter solstice. At that time, the icy clouds were detected at a much lower altitude (below 150 km, or 93 mi) and showed chemical fingerprints of hydrogen cyanicide and caynoacetylene – one of the more complex organic molecules in Titan’s atmosphere.
This difference between this and the latest detection of a hybrid cloud, according to Anderson, comes down to differences in seasonal variations between the north and south poles. Whereas the northern polar cloud observed in 2005 was spotted about two years after the northern winter solstice, the southern cloud Anderson and her team recently examined was spotted two years before the southern winter solstice.
In short, it is possible that the mixture of the gases was slightly different in the two case, and/or that the northern cloud had a chance to warm slightly, thus altering its composition somewhat. As Anderson explained, these observations were made possible thanks to the many years that the Cassini mission spent around Saturn:
“One of the advantages of Cassini was that we were able to flyby Titan again and again over the course of the thirteen-year mission to see changes over time. This is a big part of the value of a long-term mission.”
Additional studies will certainly be needed to determine the structure of these icy clouds of mixed composition, and Anderson and her team already have some ideas on how they would look. For their money, the researchers expect these clouds to be lumpy and disorderly, rather than well-defined crystals like the single-chemical clouds.
In the coming years, NASA scientists are sure to be spending a great deal of time and energy sorting through all the data obtained by the Cassini mission over the course of its 13-year mission. Who knows what else they will detect before they have exhausted the orbiter’s vast collections of data?
Until the very end, Cassini displayed just how robust and enduring this spacecraft has been throughout its entire 20 years in space and its 13-year mission at Saturn. As Cassini plummeted through the ringed-planet’s atmosphere, its thrusters fought the good fight to keep the antenna pointed at Earth for as long as possible, sending as much of the last drops of science data as it could.
Cassini endured about 40 seconds longer than expected before loss of signal was called at 11:55:46 UTC
“I hope you’re all deeply proud of this accomplishment,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize in JPL’s Mission Control Center after Cassini’s signal was lost. “This has been an incredible mission, and incredible spacecraft and an incredible team. I’m going to call this the end of mission. Project Manager off the net.”
Of course, the actual demise of Cassini took place about an hour and 23 minutes before, as it took that long for the signal to travel the 1.5 billion km distance from Saturn to Earth.
“This is a bittersweet moment for all of us,” said JPL Director Mike Watkins, “but I think it is more sweet than bitter because Cassini has been such an incredible mission. This is a great time to celebrate the hard work and dedication of those who have worked on this mission.”
Watkins added that almost everything we know about Saturn comes from the Cassini mission. “It made discoveries so compelling that we have to back,” he said. “We will go back and fly through the geysers of Encleadus and we’ll go back to explore Titan… These are incredibly compelling targets.”
Our spacecraft has entered Saturn’s atmosphere, and we have received its final transmission.
Cassini launched on Oct. 15, 1997, and arrived at Saturn’s in 2004. It studied Saturn’s rings and sent back postcards almost every day of its journeys around the Saturn system, pictures of complex moons, the intriguing rings and the giant gas planet.
It revealed the moon Enceladus as one of the most geothermally active places in our solar system, showing it to be one of the prime targets in the search for life beyond Earth.
Also, piggybacking along was the Huygens probe to study Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. This landing in 2005 was the first spacecraft to land in the outer solar system.
During its final plunge, Cassini’s instruments captured data on Saturn’s atmosphere, sending a strong signal throughout. As planned, data from eight of Cassini’s science instruments will be providing new insights about Saturn, including hints about the planet’s formation and evolution, and processes occurring in its atmosphere.
This death plunge ensures Saturn’s moons will remain pristine for future exploration.
Over 260 scientists from 17 countries and hundreds of engineers worked with Cassini throughout the entire mission. During Cassini’s final days, mission team members from all around the world gathered at JPL to celebrate the achievements of this historic mission.
Here is the last picture taken by Cassini’s cameras, showing the place where Cassini likely met its demise:
“With Cassini, we had a rare opportunity and we seized it,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini Mission Scientist.
And on Friday, September 15, we say goodbye to this incredible spacecraft.
Since 2004, Cassini has been orbiting Saturn, exploring the magnificent gas giant planet while weaving through an incredibly diverse assortment of 60-plus icy moons, and skimming along the edges of the complex but iconic icy rings.
Cassini’s findings have revolutionized our understanding of the entire Saturn system, providing intriguing insights on Saturn itself as well as revealing secrets held by moons such as Enceladus, which should be a big iceball but instead is one of the most geothermally active places in our solar system. And thanks to the Huygens lander, we now know Saturn’s largest moon, Titan is eerily Earthlike, but yet totally alien.
“The lasting story of Cassini will likely be its longevity and the monumental amount of scientific discovery,” Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize told me last year. “It was absolutely the right spacecraft in the right place at the right time to capture a huge array of phenomena at Saturn.”
But after 20 years in space, the Cassini spacecraft is running out of fuel, and so Cassini will conduct a sacred act known as ‘planetary protection.’ This self-sacrifice will ensure any potentially habitable moons of Saturn won’t be contaminated sometime in the future if the drifting, unpowered spacecraft were to accidentally crash land there. Microbes from Earth might still be adhering to Cassini, and its RTG power source still generates warmth. It could melt through the icy crust of one of Saturn’s moons, possibly, and reach a subsurface ocean.
For a mission this big, this long and this unprecedented, it will end in spectacular fashion. Called the Grand Finale — which actually began last spring — Cassini has made 22 close passes through the small gap between Saturn’s cloud tops and the innermost ring. This series of orbits has sent the spacecraft on an inevitable path towards destruction.
And tomorrow, on its final orbit, Cassini will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour. Like the science-churning machine it has been throughout its mission, Cassini will continue to conduct science observations until the very end, sending back long-sought after data about Saturn’s atmosphere. But eventually, the spacecraft will be utterly destroyed by the gas planet’s heat and pressure. It will burn up like a meteor, and become part of the planet itself.
There’s no real way to sum up this amazing mission in one article, and so I’ll leave some links and information below for you to peruse.
But I’ll also leave you with this: Instead of feeling like the mission is over, I prefer to think of Cassini as living forever, because of all the data it provided that has yet to be studied. Linda Spilker told me this last year:
“In one way,” Spilker said, “the mission will end. But we have collected this treasure trove of data, so we have decades of additional work ahead of us. With this firehose of data coming back basically every day, we have only been able to skim the cream off the top of the best images and data. But imagine how many new discoveries we haven’t made yet! The search for a more complete understanding of the Saturn system continues, and we leave that legacy to those who come after, as we dream of future missions to continue the exploration we began.”
But if you want to say goodbye to Cassini, scientist Sarah Hörst might have suggested the best way to do it:
Maybe step outside in the dark before Fri morning, find Saturn and take a moment to say hello and goodbye to @CassiniSaturn one final time
When the Cassini spacecraft arrived around Saturn on July 1st, 2004, it became the fourth space probe to visit the system. But unlike the Pioneer 11 and Voyager 1 and 2 probes, the Cassini mission was the first to establish orbit around the planet for the sake of conducting long-term research. Since that time, the spacecraft and its accompanying probe – the Huygens lander – have revealed a startling amount about this system.
On Friday, September 15th, the Cassini mission will official end as the spacecraft descends into Saturn’s atmosphere. In part of this final maneuver, Cassini recently conducted one last distant flyby of Titan. This flyby is being referred to informally as “the goodbye kiss” by mission engineers, since it is providing the gravitational push necessary to send the spacecraft into Saturn’s upper atmosphere, where it will burn up.
In the course of this flyby, the spacecraft made its closest approach to Titan on Tuesday, September 12th, at 12:04 p.m. PDT (3:04 p.m. EDT), passing within 119,049 kilometers (73,974 mi) of the moon’s surface. The maneuver was designed to slow the probe down and lower the altitude of its orbit around the planet, which will cause it to descend into Saturn’s atmosphere in a few day’s time.
The flyby also served as an opportunity to collect some final pictures and data on Saturn’s largest moon, which has been a major focal point for much of the Cassini-Huygens mission. These will all be transmitted back to Earth at 18:19 PDT (21:19 EDT) when the spacecraft makes contact, and navigators will use this opportunity to confirm that Cassini is on course for its final dive.
All told, the spacecraft made hundreds of passes over Titan during its 13-year mission. These included a total of 127 precisely targeted encounters at close and far range (like this latest flyby). As Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a NASA press statement:
“Cassini has been in a long-term relationship with Titan, with a new rendezvous nearly every month for more than a decade. This final encounter is something of a bittersweet goodbye, but as it has done throughout the mission, Titan’s gravity is once again sending Cassini where we need it to go.”
In the course of making its many flybys, the Cassini spacecraft revealed a great deal about the composition of Titan’s atmosphere, its methane cycle (similar to Earth’s hydrological cycle) and the kinds of weather it experiences in its polar regions. The probe also provided high-resolution radar images of Titan’s surface, which included topography and images of its northern methane lakes.
Cassini’s first flyby of Titan took place on July 2nd, 2004 – a day after the spacecraft’s orbital insertion – where it approached to within 339,000 km (211,000 mi) of the moon’s surface. On December 25th, 2004, Cassini released the Huygens lander into the planet’s atmosphere. The probe touched down on January 14th, 2005, taking hundreds of pictures of the moon’s surface in the process.
In November of 2016, the spacecraft began the Grand Finale phase of its mission, where it would make 22 orbits between Saturn and its rings. This phase began with a flyby of Titan that took it to the gateway of Saturn’s’ F-ring, the outermost and perhaps most active ring around Saturn. This was followed by a final close flyby of Titan on April 22nd, 2017, taking it to within 979 km (608 mi) of the moon’s surface.
Throughout its mission, Cassini also revealed some significant things about Saturn’s atmosphere, its hexagonal storms, its ring system, and its extensive system of moons. It even revealed previously-undiscovered moons, such as Methone, Pallene and Polydeuces. Last, but certainly not least, it conducted studies of Saturn’s moon Enceladus that revealed evidence of a interior ocean and plume activity around its southern polar region.
These discoveries are part of the reason why the probe will end its mission by plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, about two days and 16 hours from now. This will cause the probe to burn up, thus preventing contamination of moons like Titan and Enceladus, where microbial life could possibly exist. Finding evidence of this life will be the main focus of future missions to the Saturn system, which are likely to launch in the next decade.
So long and best wishes, Cassini! You taught so much in the past decade and we hope to follow up on it very soon. We’ll all miss you when you go!