How long have you had your latest cell phone? When did you graduate from college? The odds are good that NASAs Cassini spacecraft has been exploring Saturn and its’ many moons for longer than the answer to either of those questions. The Cassini spacecraft is a crowning achievement for space exploration and a crowning achievement for mankind. The probe was first launched back in 1997 and it reached the orbit of Saturn in 2004. Now, the spaceship has reached its final destination as it burned up in the atmosphere of Saturn after 20 years of work relaying important images and data back home to planet Earth. Let’s explore what the incredible ship accomplished while on its mission.
The Cassini spacecraft was designed by JPL and launched into space to become the first probe to ever take on the task of orbiting Saturn. The launch, which happened a full 20 years ago, would become one of the most momentous occasions in the history of space exploration. Many of the things we now take for granted regarding Saturn are only known to us now because of the work the probe did before taking its last plunge into the planet, disintegrating as it crashed. Among those legendary pieces of information are some true NASA gems. The Cassini space probe helped to reveal the structure of the rings around Saturn. Cassini was also the first spacecraft to ever make a landing in the ‘outer solar system’. Impressive stuff right? Cassini also helped to reveal a pair of moons orbiting Saturn: Titan and Enceladus. Both of these moons became primary targets in the ever expanding search for life that NASA has been focused on since the very beginning.
Despite the hard work done by Cassini the time was coming for the spacecraft to end its mission and reach its own form of peace. Mike Watkins, Director at JPL, said of Cassini’s work: “The discoveries are so compelling, we have to go back.” Watkins was immensely proud of the work that Cassini had done, calling it the opportunity of a lifetime. In fact, the probe was so successful that they had to forcefully crash it. With fuel running low, NASA did not want to risk Cassini being knocked into either Titan or Enceladus. Instead they opted to aim it toward Saturn, capturing one last piece of data: the first taste of Saturn’s atmosphere. This decision will provide data for scientists that could never have otherwise been captured.