After 13 short years the Cassini spacecraft reached its final destination, plummeting into its host planet Saturn, breaking up in its atmosphere. NASA created a short video to commemorate the spacecraft and detail its final flight. The choice to end the mission by dropping Cassini into Saturn insured that the spacecraft wouldn’t unintentionally land on one of Saturn’s moons, damaging bodies that could possibly harbor life.
Cassini began as a four year mission, then received approval for a two-year extension followed by an additional seven before finally running out of fuel. Cassini performed daredevil dives into Saturn’s rings as it slowly descended toward the planet over five months, using the last of its rocket propellant. Cassini’s original mission plan focused on Saturn and its many rings, as well as exploring Saturn’s moon, Titan. The moons of Saturn held some of the most surprising and titillating discoveries, changing how researchers perceive the potential for life off our own planet.
Cassini was the first spacecraft to drop a probe on another planet’s moon. The Huygens probe landed on Titan in 2005. Huygens and Cassini revealed a moon similar to Earth, with geologic processes creating methane rain that forms rivers, lakes and seas.
Another of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, rocked the Cassini mission, changing the course of the spacecraft. The onboard magnetometer detected an anomaly in Saturn’s magnet field near Enceladus. Researchers decided to take a closer look and arranged a flyby of the icy moon. The discovery was astonishing: beneath Enceladus’s icy crust lies an ocean of liquid, salty water. This substance is ejected from the planet in a massive plume that reaches hundreds of miles into space. Some of it is pulled into Saturn’s E ring. Researchers hypotheses that hydrothermal vents are likely present beneath the crust after analyzing the particles in the E ring. These vents would be similar to the ones found on our ocean floor.
Unwittingly, Enceladus turned into the most Earthlike body in our solar system. It changed the way that scientists consider life to be possible in the Universe. No longer do we only look to planetary bodies for the ingredients of life. Now we know that moons and other orbiting bodies could also hold the necessary ingredients for life as we know it. This subterranean sea could very well be home to microbial life.
The Cassini mission opened new avenues of study and broadened our understanding of our solar system and the Universe. Though Cassini is now decommissioned, scientists will be pouring over the data and making new discoveries for many years to come.
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