Yes, it’s true. As of today, August 15, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has less than 31 days—one full month—left in operation and, sadly, its existence. On September 15, 2017, Cassini will end its mission with a controlled dive into Saturn’s atmosphere…a journey that it will not long survive. But up until the very end Cassini, which has been exploring the majestic ringed planet and its family of moons since it arrived in the summer of 2004, will be making scientific observations and sending the data back to us here on Earth—at least as long as it possibly can. That data, in fact, will still be en route across the 900 million miles of space between us and Saturn for almost an hour after the spacecraft will have succumbed to the forces of atmospheric entry.
When Cassini’s final signal is received on Earth it will be a ghost message, sent from a ship that no longer exists.
The decision was made to end Cassini in this way in order to get the most science performed using the spacecraft’s still-functioning instruments but also protect its pristine moons (especially Enceladus and Titan) from potential impact at some point in the future by an orbiting Earthly vehicle that has run out of fuel. It makes sense, and what Cassini will learn about Saturn’s atmosphere and inner ring system will be valuable and unprecedented, but it’s also very hard to know that a spacecraft that has been Earth’s faithful science and photographic emissary at Saturn for 13 years will soon be no more. Such is the way with spacecraft, I suppose, but it’s no less difficult…especially since I’ve been following along with Cassini since I first started blogging here in 2009.
I set the video from JPL below to the tune of Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars.” It seemed fitting and for me evokes the bittersweet emotions that come with the upcoming end of Cassini, the little spacecraft that most definitely could. (Yes it’s “bootleg” and unlicensed and I suggest you watch it while it still exists online. I haven’t gotten any angry letters from Chris Martin’s lawyers…yet.)
If you want to see the original from JPL, click here.