At 12:55 UT (13:55 BST, 08:55 EST, 05:55 PDT) the very last signal was received from the NASA / ESA Cassini spacecraft as it entered the upper reaches of Saturn’s atmosphere before disintegrating and burning-up. It was received 83 by NASA’s ground station near Canberra, Australia, 83 minutes after being transmitted – by which time the probe had already been destroyed.
At mission control, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated jointly by NASA and Caltech in Pasadena, California, it was an emotional moment. For many, the mission had been a part of their daily lives for nigh-on 20 years.
“The signal from the spacecraft is gone and, within the next 45 seconds, so will be the spacecraft,” Cassini programme manager Earl Maize announced, his voice catching, to the team gathered in mission control. “I’m going to call this the end of mission.” He then turned to Spacecraft Operations Team manager Julie Webster and hugged her, before giving Linda Spilker, the Cassini Project Scientist a hug as well. That loss of signal came within 30 seconds of the time predicted ahead of Cassini’s final dive.
As I reported last week, The Cassini-Huygens mission has been an incredible voyage of discovery, revealing so much about Saturn, its rings and retinue of moons, including hints on the evolution of life itself and revealing how moons Titan and Eceladus may have all the right conditions to support basic life while Tethys could – like Enceladus – have a liquid water ocean under its ice.
Cassini’s final approach commenced on September 11th, as it started back towards Saturn having made a final pass between the planet and its rings and looping away from both the week before. Passing by Titan, and once more using the moon’s gravity to push it into the correct trajectory, the probe headed back for its final encounter with Saturn. The Titan fly-by presented a last opportunity to image and study the moon before Cassini’s imaging system was focused on Saturn for the first part of the final approach. Imaging Saturn ended on Thursday, September 14th as the vehicle re-oriented itself to gather as much data on its brief passage into the upper reaches of Saturn’s atmosphere.
As I’ve previously noted in my Cassini mission updates, the primary reason for sending the probe into Saturn’s atmosphere was because it had exhausted almost all of its on-board fuel supplies used to orient itself and to adjust its flight through the Saturnian system, and the mission team didn’t want to leave the probe tumbling around Saturn’s moons where it might one day impact one of them and contaminate it with both Earthly microbes which may be dormant inside the vehicle, and which radioactive debris from its electrical power generators.
However, an alternative would have been to use the last of the vehicle’s fuel to boost it away from Saturn and out into space, but the scientific return promised by a final plunge into the planet was too good to refuse. “Saturn was so compelling, so exciting, and the mission we finally came up with was so rich scientifically that we just couldn’t — we had to finish up at Saturn, not some place else.” Earl Maize stated during a press conference after the probe’s fiery end.
There are currently no planned missions that will follow Cassini-Huygens to Saturn, although there are proposals to send missions to Titan. However, while the active part of the mission has come to an end, it’s not an end of the mission’s science.
“We have collected this treasure trove of data, so we have decades of additional work ahead of us,” Linda Spilker, the Cassini Mission Scientist said. “With this fire hose of data coming back basically every day, we have only been able to skim the cream off the top of the best images and data. But imagine how many new discoveries we haven’t made yet! The search for a more complete understanding of the Saturn system continues, and we leave that legacy to those who come after, as we dream of future missions to continue the exploration we began.”
As a closing note – for now – it’s not often that a space mission gains an official music video; but Cassini-Huygen has been a major inspiration for many over the past two decades, it has earned not one, but three official music videos which form a suite of music by three composes: Iniziare (Italian: “to start” by Sleeping At Last, aka Ryan O’Neal), Kanna (Icelandic: “Explore” by Sarah Schachner) and Amaiera (“end” or “stop” by Joseph Trapanese). I’ve embedded the first part below.
SpaceX Launch X-37B
On Thursday, September 7th, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster launched the US Air Force X-37B secret mini-shuttle into orbit ahead of the Florida coast being hit by hurricane Irma. It marked the 13th Falcon 9 launch of 2017, and the fifth flight overall for the X-37B.
OTv-5 (Orbital Test Vehicle flight 5) saw the automated spaceplane placed into a higher inclination orbit than previous missions – thus expanding the vehicle’s flight envelope. However, in keeping with previous missions, the USAF has remained mostly silent on the mission’s objectives or its intended duration, revealing only that one experiment flying is the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader II (ASETS-II), which will measure the performance of an oscillating heat pipe.
Previous OTV missions have been long-duration flights, with the maiden flight in 2010 lasting 224 days and 9 hours, which each mission lasting longer than the last, with the last mission completed, OTV-4, totalling 717 days and 20 hours in orbit. The flights have, up until now, alternated between the two known X-37B vehicles, so although it has not been confirmed, it is believed this mission is being carried out by the first X-37B to fly in space.
The launch took place from Kennedy Space Centre’s Launch pad 39A, which SpaceX has leased from the US space agency and refurbished to handle Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launches – and which is now liable to be the pad from which the company’s massive ITS super-heavy rocket will depart when it enters operations in the 2020s. After separating from the upper stage and its cargo, the Falcon 9 first stage performed a “burn-back” manoeuvre and flew back to SpaceX’s dedicated Landing Zone-1 (LZ-1) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station alongside Kennedy Space Centre, offering spectators a superb view of the landing.