The Cassini spacecraft and its missions to photograph the gas giant Saturn, its rings, and its elaborate moon system have all been a universal success from beginning to end. NASA began development way back in the 1980s, launched the probe in 1997, watched as it entered orbit in 2004, and sat back to let the public marvel at the wondrous pictures it has captured. And now, at the end of all things, the craft has begun its final mission.
A descent into Saturn’s atmosphere that will ultimately destroy it, an event that will occur on Sept. 15, 2017. The decision to crash it was made way back in 2010, and the mission has extended well beyond its originally intended time span.
Aging technology, damaged pieces, serving out all of its purposes, keeping Saturn’s moons safe from crashes. There are plenty of reasons why Cassini has to come to an end, and those who have followed the craft for so many years no doubt have mixed feelings about the closure of this mission. Obviously, nobody has more to think about than Dr. Carolyn Porco, who has been with the project for the last 27 years. She now acts as head of the imaging team.
Dr. Porco recently gave an interview with NPR to describe the final months of the mission.
Well, we decided to go out in grand style. There was still a lot of verve left in the spacecraft and the instruments. And we knew it was time to bring the mission to an end. All good things must end. And so we put it on an orbit that took it and is taking it through unchartered territory. We’re very, very close to the cloud tops of Saturn. We’re measuring in fine detail the gravitational field of Saturn. We’re going to be measuring the rotation rate of the planet. And then, finally, it will be measuring the composition of the Saturn atmosphere. So in some real sense, this is like a new mission. And, like I said, we’re going out in grand style.
In the interview, Porco describes the legacy of the project, the final stages it will go through, her most exciting discoveries, and she closed out with her own personal feelings.
For 27 years up until when it goes into Saturn, I will have spent my life doing this one thing. And then after that, it’s over. And that goes for many, many of us on this project. So it’s going to be – in some sense is going to be like a death. You know, it’s been a huge part of my life. And then it won’t be there anymore. But I think also that – I mean, I know that’s a legacy that I’m always going to be enormously proud of. And I think I’ll enjoy it when I’m, you know, in my rocking chair, you know, as an old lady just thinking about what I did with my life.
You can read the full interview at NPR. Today, Cassini is expected to pass through the ring system for the second time in a week, pulling off an unprecedented maneuver to avoid collisions and get closer to Saturn than ever before.