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Spacecraft Down: Cassini is Gone


It’s official: Cassini’s mission at Saturn is over. Today, at 6:31 a.m. EDT (10:31 UTC), Cassini entered the atmosphere of Saturn. A little over a minute later it sent its final transmission back to Earth before succumbing to the physical forces of entry. That signal, Cassini’s last piece of data, ended at 7:55 a.m. EDT (11:55 UTC). After over thirteen years in orbit Cassini is now a part of Saturn; its work is done.

Mission accomplished.

About 14 hours earlier Cassini transmitted its final images of Saturn to Earth. You can see some of those below: Read the rest of this entry

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It’s Time to Say Goodbye to Cassini

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.)

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It’s Cassini’s Final Month.

Cassini is completing its 13-year tour of Saturn with dives between the planet and its rings. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.

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A Departing View From Cassini After Clearing the Gap

Animation of raw uncalibrated images acquired by Cassini on May 3, 2017 (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by Jason Major.)

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.

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The Color Out Of Space: What’s False and What’s Real (and Why It’s a Big Deal)

Color-composite of Saturn made from raw, uncalibrated images acquired on May 1, 2004. Warning: NOT SCIENTIFICALLY ACCURATE COLOR.

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.

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