The end is near. On September 15, 2017, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will end its mission as well as its very existence with a plunge into the atmosphere of the very planet it has been orbiting since June 2004. It’s a maneuver intended to protect the pristine environments of Saturn’s icy moons, some of which harbor hidden reserves of liquid water, from potential impact contamination by an incapacitated spacecraft at some distant time in the future. But even though the reasons are noble, there’s no doubt that the final flight of Cassini and its inevitable loss will be a sad event for all those — myself very much included — who have followed along on its journey of discovery all these years. (Literally my first feature post here was a picture from Cassini.)
The video above, released today by NASA, is a poignant look both back at Cassini’s voyages and ahead at its Grand Finale, the last and most daring part of its mission at Saturn. These last few months will be bittersweet for Cassini fans, as every week will bring us closer to the end but also new and breathtaking views of Saturn…up to and including one last “family portrait” of the planet, its beautiful rings, and family of amazing moons.
Must be dusty in here, there’s something in my eye…
The end phase of the mission begins April 22. Follow along with the Grand Finale here.
At the north pole of Saturn’s largest moon Titan lie the largest (and only known) bodies of surface liquid in the Solar System outside of Earth. But on Titan, where temperatures are regularly around negative 300ºF, the liquid isn’t water but rather methane and ethane: compounds which are found as gases here on Earth. Titan’s seas and lakes are exotic environments that scientists are only just starting to understand, and even with radar imaging by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft there’s a lot we just don’t know about them. But one thing some researchers have managed to figure out using simulated Titan environments in the lab is that these lakes may sometimes fizz with bubbles of nitrogen—potentially explaining some of the mysteries of Cassini’s observations.
“Thanks to this work on nitrogen’s solubility, we’re now confident that bubbles could indeed form in the seas, and in fact may be more abundant than we’d expected,” said Jason Hofgartner of JPL, who serves as a co-investigator on Cassini’s radar team and was a co-author of the study.
Read the news straight from NASA here: Experiments Show Titan Lakes May Fizz with Nitrogen
On March 9, 2017, NASA’s Curiosity rover took this picture with its turret-mounted MAHLI camera of the calibration target installed near the “shoulder” of its robotic arm. In addition to color chips and a metric line graph, the target also includes a U.S. coin: a 1909 Lincoln penny, adhered heads-up.
Curiosity’s coin isn’t just for good luck though; it’s also a nod to geologists who typically use familiar objects in field photos to help determine scale. (Curiosity is, after all, one of only two working robot geologists on all of Mars!)
The first mission to successfully* send a rover to Mars, NASA’s Mars Pathfinder, launched on Dec. 4, 1996. It was a “budget” Discovery mission designed to demonstrate a low-cost method for delivering a set of science instruments to Mars and sent the first remote-controlled vehicle to be used on another planet. Solar-powered and only a foot in height, the little six-wheeled Sojourner was the foundation for all future Mars rovers…and, along with the Carl Sagan Memorial Station, gave us our best views of the Martian surface since the Viking 1 and 2 landers.
Even if you’re feeling inundated by Valentine-themed everything at the moment, if you love space and you’re at all creative you’re definitely going to adore this. With Cassini in the final months of its 13 years at Saturn, NASA wants you to share your love of the spacecraft, its discoveries, and the ringed planet and its fascinating family of moons.
“We’re so gratified that Cassini’s images have inspired people to work with the pictures themselves to produce such beautiful creations,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “It’s been truly wonderful for us to feel the love for Cassini from the public. The feeling from those of us on the mission is mutual.”
In honor of Cassini’s last year in orbit (as well as its last Valentine’s Day!) the mission team is inviting all the Saturn lovers out there to share their Cassini-inspired creations through the “Cassini Inspires” outreach program. Digital art, processed images, paintings, drawings, songs, poems…if it drew any inspiration at all from something Cassini made possible, share it with the world!