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.
Cassini did it again! On May 2-3, 2017 the spacecraft made its second “ring dive” pass of Saturn, passing through the clear space between the innermost edge of the ring system and the planet itself. The animation above shows a view from Cassini looking back toward Saturn on its outbound flight on May 3, just a few hours after the ringplane crossing. Saturn’s limb is visible at upper left.
What’s more, NASA has released a detailed video from the first ring dive on April 26, showing all of the images that were captured and where on Saturn Cassini’s cameras were pointed. Check it out below.
As you must certainly know by now, I love pictures of the many worlds of our Solar System. That is what I built this blog around and it’s what I’ve been mainly sharing here for the past eight years and counting. I particularly love the pictures of Saturn from NASA’s Cassini mission…really nothing exemplifies the beauty of the Solar System for me like majestic sweeping views of Saturn’s rings. And thanks to the modern marvel of The Internet these images have been made available to everyone, nearly as the same time as they are to the scientists on the mission team. This is true for many of NASA’s recent and current missions, not just Cassini, and there is a constantly-growing group of enthusiasts out there who take these raw images and create beautiful, full-color pictures from them, helping to bring the wonders of the Solar System to life.
There is a downside to doing this. The color images that are being produced by amateurs (including myself) are not usually calibrated to any specific standards. They are composed from preliminary, uncatalogued raw images. These usually—but not always—have been acquired in visible-light wavelengths, but even then the result isn’t necessarily an accurate representation of the colors you’d see if you were looking at the same scene from the viewpoint of the spacecraft.
Cassini made it! On April 26, 2017, NASA’s Saturn-exploring spacecraft made its closest pass by the planet since its arrival in 2004, beginning the final phase of its mission with its first “Grand Finale” orbital pass that took it between the top of the planet’s atmosphere and the innermost edge of the ring system. It’s literally a journey that no other spacecraft has ever made—and now the pictures are coming in!
It’s also the closest Cassini has come to Saturn itself; at closest point Cassini was only about 1,900 miles (3,000 km) above the tops of Saturn’s swirling clouds. It’s amazing to think that the images we’re seeing were captured with Cassini’s wide angle camera—typically views like this have had to use its “zoom” narrow-angle camera!
Check out an animation below of some of Cassini’s views captured during the pass over Saturn’s north pole.
That’s here; that’s home; that’s us. The image above shows what Earth looked like to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on April 13, 2017 as it flew past Saturn’s night-shadowed A and F rings. At the time the raw images were captured Saturn and Cassini were about 889.6 million miles (1.43 billion kilometers) from Earth. From that distance our entire world—and everyone on it—is just another tiny light in the dark.