All You Need to Know About…The Cassini Spacecraft

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Saturn, one of the most iconic planets in our solar system. With its gorgeous rings, it has long been a focus of astrological research. Since October 15, 1997, the Cassini spacecraft has been traveling through our solar system on its mission to research this awe-inspiring gas giant. It has been in space for nearly 20 years, and its mission will soon be ending- it’s about to explode. On September 15, 2017, the Cassini spacecraft is scheduled to fall into Saturn’s atmosphere to be disposed of.

The Cassini is one of the most complex spacecrafts ever launched. It is the third heaviest craft to successfully make it out of the atmosphere, with only the two Phobos probes launched to Mars by the former Soviet Union boasting more. The weight of the Cassini probe at launch was 5.82 tons, with 3.1 tons of propellant on board. It took a massive international team to make the mission possible, including contributions from 33 U.S. states and 16 European countries. The project was a cooperation between the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA, created with the hope of building a bond between the two organizations that could lead to future work together.

One of the things that the Cassini spacecraft discovered was the existence of an underground ocean on Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons. The spacecraft found something that no one can quite put their finger on, possibly an atmosphere changing Saturn’s gravitational field. This led to further investigation into Enceladus, and astrophysicists determined that the moon was releasing gases. In 2005, the Cassini took the first ever pictures of Enceladus’s south pole, where particles are constantly being emitted into the space surrounding the moon. The theory of a large body of water located under the surface of Enceladus was confirmed by a slight wobble in its orbit around Saturn, which lined up with the imbalance that would be caused by a large underground ocean. The conclusion reached was that there is a 19-25 mile deep ocean under the surface of Enceladus, reaching a depth of up to 40 miles at the southernmost point. This caused a lot of interest in the moon, with ideas circulating that it may be habitable.

Another aspect of Saturn that the Cassini investigated was the area between the planet and its rings. This area was an topic of mystery for a long time, and on April 26, 2017, Cassini made the dive. The scientist observing the spacecraft expected it to experience a lot of resistance and many collisions with dust particles, so it used a disk shaped antenna as a shield, but the number of crashes was much lower than expected. This area has been named the “Big Empty”, and these results have caused a lot of additional speculation and research.

For nearly 20 years, the Cassini spacecraft has been traveling throughout our solar system. In these final months, it will undergo more unpredictable excursions in an attempt to make the most of the end of its life. The Cassini is running out of rocket fuel, and scientists may soon lose control over the spacecraft’s ability to change course, which is why they are choosing to call it quits. It must be destroyed in order to keep it from getting in the way of future space travel concerning the moons which the Cassini first revealed information on. It’s safe to say that it’s been a good run.

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All You Need to Know About…The Cassini Spacecraft