Artist’s rendering of Cassini at Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL
Well, the day has come. Today is the last full day that NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will exist, and in fact right now it is on its final path—a grand soaring arc that will send it down into the atmosphere of Saturn itself on the morning of Friday, Sept. 15. It will be the closest to the ringed planet any spacecraft will have ever gotten, but it’s a trip that Cassini will not long survive. It’s the long-planned end of a glorious mission of exploration and discovery—not to mention beauty, art, and inspiration—and while Cassini itself will soon be gone, the enormous amount of data it has gathered in the twenty years since its launch will continue to drive discovery for many, many years to come.
(At least that’s what we’re all telling ourselves to make the loss a bit easier to bear.)
Cassini (and its onboard Huygens probe) launched on Oct. 15, 1997 aboard a Titan IVB rocket from LC-40 at Cape Canaveral AFS. Over the next several years it traveled in increasingly-larger loops around the inner Solar System, gaining velocity by passing through the gravity wells of Venus (twice), Earth, and ...