On 15 September 2017 NASA’s Cassini space probe death-dived into Saturn’s atmosphere. It was a fiery exit for humankind’s most successful space mission. For thirteen years little Cassini, no larger than a removals truck, danced its way around the giant Saturnian system collecting invaluable scientific data and the best photos ever of the second largest planet in our solar system, and its moons.
Image: NASA / JPL
The mission helped scientists to understand the composition and characterstics of Saturn’s atmosphere, and included the discovery of a 5000-mile wide south polar hurricane. On Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, Cassini and its tiny Huygens lander probe, found lakes of liquid methane in a weird ice-sculpted landscape, and a whole ‘hydrological’ system where methane rain floated to the surface like snowflakes.
Perhaps the most breathtaking discovery of all though was on the tiny moon Enceladus. Cassini’s flybys of Enceladus revealed giant jets of water particles shooting hundreds of miles into space from cracks in this moon’s icy surface. In those jets were organic compounds. Further investigations suggested that beneath a crust of ice Enceladus has a sub-surface ocean of salty water where life could exist.
Watching Saturn through a telescope
The night before Cassini’s ...