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.
On Monday, March 27, at 4:52 a.m. EDT (08:52 UTC) NASA’s Juno spacecraft made its fifth close pass of Jupiter, passing about 2,700 miles (4,400 km) above the planet’s clouds while traveling at a relative speed of 129,000 mph (57.8 kilometers per second). The images above, captured with the JunoCam instrument, show the giant planet’s south pole during this P5 pass.
On March 17, 2002, a pair of satellites nicknamed “Tom” and “Jerry” launched aboard a Russian Rockot vehicle from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. It was the start of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, aka GRACE, a partnership mission between NASA and the German space agency (DLR) to map Earth’s gravity field and how it changes over time due to the movement and variations of surface and ground water. Originally planned to be a five-year mission, GRACE has now been continuously operating in orbit for over 15 years, and has revealed much about what’s been happening to the water on—and in—our planet.
In its long history of space exploration the United States has never had a robotic mission sent to the surface of Venus. Flybys, orbiting spacecraft, and atmospheric probes yes, but to date nothing from NASA has operated on the extreme, hellish surface of the second rock from the Sun. Russia, on the other hand, has successfully landed on Venus ten times, eight with its Venera program and the ninth and tenth in 1984–85 with the Vega 1 and 2 missions. Because of its long-running expertise, the U.S. is looking to partner with Russia on a brand-new Venera mission, Venera-D, which in 2025 would send an orbiter, a lander, and possibly even an inflatable airship to Venus to explore its exotic and overheated environments.
“While Venus is known as our ‘sister planet,’ we have much to learn, including whether it may have once had oceans and harbored life,” said Jim Green, NASA’s director of Planetary Science. “By understanding the processes at work at Venus and Mars, we will have a more complete picture about how terrestrial planets evolve over time and obtain insight into the Earth’s past, present and future.”
Read the full story from NASA here: NASA Studying Shared Venus Science Objectives with Russian Space Research Institute
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!)