Two months from this posting, September 15th, the Cassini spacecraft will end its mission at the planet Saturn by diving into the planet’s atmosphere and self destruction.
This animated graphic shows the hourly position of the Cassini spacecraft as it makes a distant flyby of two of Saturn’s smaller moons, Atlas and Janus on July 19th. (the moons and spacecraft have been greatly enlarged to make them visible)
20 Years Ago
On October 14, 1997, NASA launched Cassini, its largest interplanetary spacecraft, on a nearly seven-year voyage to Saturn. The voyage to Saturn was a two-part mission that included an orbiter and the Huygens probe. The Cassini orbiter was designed to explore Saturn’s system as it looped over, under, and around the planet’s many moons and rings. The Huygens probe was designed and planned for a study of the atmosphere and surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, as well as a parachute-assisted soft landing on the surface. On September 15th the exploration phase of the Cassini mission will end as the spacecraft runs out of fuel and descends into Saturn’s atmosphere. As frictional forces tear the spacecraft apart, instruments on-board will send back data about the planet’s atmosphere.
35 Years Ago
Typically, little is known about what happens after or before the active part of a mission. We know that the follow-up to a mission is the data analysis, which usually takes many years. What is generally not acknowledged is the lead-up to the official mission, which begins with the launch. The Cassini Mission was first proposed in 1982, 15 years before the actual launch. Several years of planning and coordination between NASA and the European Space Agency followed. By the end of the 1980’s, the mission had been approved and was finally launched in 1997. Thirty-five years will have passed since the inception of the Cassini mission and the demise of the spacecraft when it enters Saturn’s atmosphere.
Where is Cassini Now?
Cassini grand finale fact sheet
Cassini mission timeline poster
Four Days at Saturn video