NASA's Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft faces fiery finish [Yahoo News] 12 Sep, 2017

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After a 20-year voyage, Cassini is poised to dive into Saturn on Friday, Sept. 15, 2016. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute via AP) 0 Shares Email After a 20-year voyage, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is poised to dive into Saturn this week to become forever one with the exquisite planet. There's no turning back: Friday it careens through the atmosphere and burns up like a meteor in the sky over Saturn. NASA is hoping for scientific dividends up until the end. Every tidbit of data radioed back from Cassini will help astronomers better understand the entire Saturnian system — rings, moons and all. The only spacecraft ever to orbit Saturn, Cassini spent the past five months exploring the uncharted territory between the gaseous planet and its dazzling rings. It's darted 22 times between that gap, sending back ever more wondrous photos. On Monday, Cassini flew past jumbo moon Titan one last time for a gravity assist— a final kiss goodbye, as NASA calls it, nudging the spacecraft into a deliberate, no-way-out path. During its final plunge early Friday morning, Cassini will keep sampling Saturn's atmosphere and beaming back data, until the spacecraft loses control and its antenna no longer points toward Earth. Descending at a scorching 76,000 mph (122,000 kph), Cassini will melt and then vaporize. It should be all over in a minute. "The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful, and it's coming to an end," said NASA program scientist Curt Niebur. "I find great comfort in the fact that Cassini will continue teaching us up to the very last second." Telescopes on Earth will watch for Cassini's burnout nearly a billion miles (1.6 billion kilometers) away. But any flashes will be hard to see given the time — close to high noon at Saturn — and Cassini's minuscule size against the solar system's second largest planet. The plutonium on board will be the last thing to go. The dangerous substance was encased in super-dense iridium as a safeguard for Cassini's 1997 launch and has been used for electric power to run its instruments. Project officials said once the iridium melts, the plutonium will be dispersed into the atmosphere. Nothing — not even traces of plutonium — should escape Saturn's deep gravity well. The whole point of this one last exercise — dubbed the Grand Finale — is to prevent the spacecraft from crashing into the moons of Enceladus (ehn-SEHL'-uh-duhs) or Titan. NASA wants future robotic explorers to find pristine worlds where life might possibly exist, free of Earthly contamination. It's inevitable that the $3.9 billion U.S.-European mission is winding down. Cassini's fuel tank is almost empty, and its objectives have been accomplished many times over since its 2004 arrival at Saturn following a seven-year journey. The leader of Cassini's imaging team, planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, already feels the loss. "There's another part of me that's just, 'It's time. We did it.' Cassini was so profoundly, scientifically successful," said Porco, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's amazing to me even, what we were able to do right up until the end." Until Cassini, only three spacecraft had ventured into Saturn's neighborhood: NASA's Pioneer 11 in 1979 and Voyager 1 and 2 in the early 1980s. Those were just flybys, though, and offered fleeting glances. And so Cassini and its traveling companion, the Huygens (HOY'-gens) lander, actually provided the first hard look at Saturn, its rings and moons. They are named for 17th-century astronomers, Italian Giovanni Domenico Cassini and Dutch Christiaan Huygens, who spotted Saturn's first moon, Titan. The current count is 62. Cassini discovered six moons — some barely a mile or two across — as well as swarms of moonlets that are still part of Saturn's rings. All told, Cassini has traveled 4.9 billion miles (7.9 billion kilometers) since launch, orbited Saturn nearly 300 times and collected more than 453,000 pictures and 635 gigabytes of scientific data. The European Space Agency's Huygens lander — which hitchhiked all the way to Saturn aboard Cassini — still rests on Titan. It parachuted down in 2005, about six months after Cassini arrived at Saturn, and relayed data for more than an hour from the moon's frigid surface. Still believed intact, Huygens remains the only spacecraft to actually land in one of our outer planetary systems. Other than Titan's size — about as big as Mercury — little was known about Saturn's biggest and haze-covered moon before Cassini and Huygens showed up. They revealed seas and lakes of methane and ethane at Titan — the result of rainfall — and provided evidence of an underground ocean, quite possibly a brew of water and ammonia. Over at the little moon Enceladus, Cassini unveiled plumes of water vapor spewing from cracks at the south pole. These geysers are so tall and forceful that they actually blast icy particles into one of Saturn's rings. Thanks to Cassini, scientists believe water lies beneath the icy surface of Enceladus, making it a prime spot to look for traces of potential life. "Enceladus has no business existing and yet there it is, practically screaming at us, 'Look at me. I completely invalidate all of your assumptions about the solar system.'" Niebur said. "It's an amazing destination." That's precisely why scientists didn't want to risk Cassini crashing into it, said program manager Earl Maize at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "The book is not complete. There's more to come" from exploring the planets, Maize said. "But this has been a marvelous ride." 0 Shares Email Star Comments NASA's Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft faces fiery finish What you need to know about the iPhone 8, iPhone X Tesla's semiautonomous system contributed to fatal crash: Feds Apple officially opens Steve Jobs Theater with unveiling of iPhone 8, iPhone X First look: Apple's luxury iPhone both copies and innovates Highlights: Apple unveils $999 phone, new Face ID technology Apple unveils $999 iPhone X with facial recognition Irma's girth and path made for a bizarre Florida storm surge New lawsuits, gestures to customers in Equifax data breach US updates self-driving car guidelines as more hit the road Cassini spacecraft's amazing photos of Saturn, rings & moons Irma death toll rises as power restored to over 2 million Justices allow Trump administration ban on most refugees Hope Hicks named permanent White House communications director Pelosi, top White House official open on border security Democrats line up behind Bernie Sanders' single payer plan White House slams Hillary Clinton over attacks in new book Key takeaways from Hillary Clinton's new book, 'What Happened' Cruz says aide inadvertently caused his porn Twitter post Trump to visit Florida on Thursday after Hurricane Irma Unhappy moderate House Republicans complicate 2018 for GOP Hillary Clinton signs copies of new book at NYC bookstore Trump Organization 'still assessing' whether Hurricane Irma damaged properties White House declines to say if climate change may have been a factor in hurricanes Trump administration appeals to Supreme Court on refugee ban GOP leaders are trying to block Trump's populist agenda, Bannon says Trump outreach to Dems unsettling for GOP Hillary Clinton admits her 'most important' blunder that swayed 2016 election Special counsel interested in interviewing top White House aides: Sources

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