Saturn’s rings are one of the most beautiful and breathtaking sights in the Solar System – but it hasn’t always been that way. New evidence in data sent back by the now-defunct Cassini spacecraft shows that they are much younger than the planet itself, and that Saturn was actually ringless for most of its existence.
It has been just over a month now since the Cassini spacecraft took its final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, ending an incredible mission of 13 years at the ringed giant planet. The probe continued collecting scientific data until the very last moments, and now engineers have been able to reconstruct what happened to it as it met its fate.
In the pre-dawn darkness of 15 October 1997, exactly two decades ago, this very day, one of the largest and most powerful rockets ever brought to operational service was poised for launch on Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Standing some 183 feet (55.9 meters) tall, the Titan IV had flown on 20 occasions in the previous eight years, completing all but one of its missions successfully. However, the configuration to be employed on this particular flight—known as the Titan IVB-Centaur, a three-stage beast, with two side-mounted solid-fueled boosters—had only launched once before, to deliver a military satellite into orbit in February 1997. Many minds, of course, were on the Titan IV’s single operational failure, for on 15 October 1997 the Titan IV faced perhaps the most important mission of its career: the launch of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft on a 1.4-billion-mile (2.2-billion-kilometer) journey to explore Saturn. Continue reading
The moment that many people have been waiting for – albeit with great sadness – has finally arrived, with the Cassini spacecraft ending its mission in a literal blaze of glory. At 4:55 AM PT on Sept. 15, the long-lived explorer plummeted into Saturn’s atmosphere for its final act, bringing to a close a 13-year study of Saturn and its moons. As the saying goes, “all good things must come to an end,” and now that time has come for Cassini, which has transformed our knowledge about Saturn and its many bizarre and strange moons.
The end is nigh. Those really are not the words that scientists and fans of the Cassini mission at Saturn want to hear, but it’s true. After exploring Saturn and its moons since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has now entered its final orbit around the ringed gas giant, and today will also make its last pass through the gap between Saturn and its rings. A week from now, Cassini will plunge into Saturn’s thick atmosphere, still recording data as long as it can, until it is crushed by the intense atmospheric pressure. Although the mission will be over, however, the incredible amount of science returned by Cassini will keep scientists busy for many years to come.
There are now less than five orbits left in the Grand Finale until Cassini’s awe-inspiring mission at Saturn comes to an end. With each remaining orbit, Cassini comes closer to plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, never to be heard from again. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, assists the spacecraft during this phase of the mission, nudging on it with its gravity to keep Cassini in the right orbits for when it dives between the innermost rings and the planet itself. And now those final moments are almost here.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft just completed its 17th ring crossing at Saturn, part of the Grand Finale phase of the mission, leaving only 5 more to go before the mission ends on Sept. 15. As before, the ring crossing was a success, with Cassini sending back precious more data about the Saturn system even though time is now running short. The ring crossings, bringing the spacecraft closer to Saturn than ever before, provide a unique way for scientists to learn even more about Saturn and its moons in a manner never before possible.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has now successfully completed its 12th ring crossing at Saturn, and is now well past the halfway point of the Grand Finale phase of its mission. Each ring crossing, with now only 10 left, brings Cassini closer to its inevitable end in September, when the spacecraft will plunge into Saturn’s turbulent atmosphere to meet its fiery fate.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has just successfully completed its tenth ring crossing at Saturn, on June 23, which brings it almost halfway through the Grand Finale – the last phase of the mission, which will end on Sept. 15, 2017. This leaves twelve more ring crosses to go before the end of the mission. There may not be a lot of time left for Cassini, but these last close flybys of Saturn are providing views and data never before possible – a crowning achievement for a mission which has already completely changed our understanding of the giant ringed planet and its moons.
As Cassini’s “Grand Finale” journey continues, the spacecraft has completed its eighth dive past the innermost rings of Saturn (known as a ring crossing), and there are now just under 100 days left until it plunges into the giant planet’s atmosphere, never to come back. Although time may be running out, Cassini continues to devour every drop of science data that it can, which builds upon other data that has transformed our view of the Saturnian system – a complex array of worlds like a miniature Solar System. This includes, of course, more fantastic images of Saturn and its rings and moons. The detail seen in the rings is nothing short of staggering.
NASA’s Cassini probe has now survived its third dive into Saturn’s rings, specifically the gap between the innermost rings and the planet itself. This is just the latest in a series of 22 such planned dives for the Grand Finale phase, before the mission ends on Sept. 15, 2017. This time, as well as obtaining more close-up views of the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere again, Cassini took a look at Saturn’s largest moon Titan from a distance, and saw some of the longest and brightest clouds in the hazy atmosphere that it has seen in the entire mission. Even though Cassini won’t be making any more close flybys of Titan, these new views are fantastic.
Cassini’s “dance” with Saturn’s rings continues – the probe has now completed its second dive into the rings (orbit 272), specifically the gap between the innermost rings and Saturn itself. That leaves 20 more similar dives to go, as part of the Grand Finale phase of Cassini’s mission before the fateful end on Sept. 15. This is the closest that any spacecraft has ever come to Saturn, showing the rings and the planet itself in detail never seen before.