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NASA starts countdown for Cassini probe's Saturn death dive

Keep Solar System Tidy message heeded despite plan for three probe dumps

By Simon Sharwood, 19 Sep 2016

NASA has revealed its final plans to crash the Cassini probe into Saturn next year.

Cassini–Huygens, to give the craft its full name, launched in 1997 and skipped past Venus twice and Earth once for some gravity-assisted acceleration action. It then grazed Asteroid 2685 Masursky, used Jupiter for acceleration and arrived at at Saturn on July 1st, 2004.

It's orbited ever since, clocking up 243 orbits, discovering ten moons and sending home 599GB of data that helped to fuel 3,616 scientific papers.

But the probe is now running out of fuel meaning NASA won't be able to control Cassini for much longer. It's therefore been decided to send the craft straight into Saturn because of the risk the craft may carry a terrestrial microbe that could damage the ecosystems it's speculated may exist on the gas giant's moons.

NASA's therefore started the year-until-death countdown for the probe, which will meet its fate on September 15th, 2017.

Cassini has a busy year to get through before dying. At present it's using Titan's gravity to raise its orbital tilt with respect to Saturn's equator and rings. From that position Cassini will be able to visit Saturn's “F rings” “kinked and braided”. Cassini's not had a good look at the F rings since 2004 and then only managed to see one side. This time around – or times, because the mission plans 20 orbits – the craft will get a very good look at the rings from a distance of just 7,800 kilometers.

The probe will then sneak between Saturn and the rings 22 times, the first time Cassini has visited that region of space. And then on September 15th it will all be over, presumably in a puff of metallic gas. The probe will transmit for as long as it is able.

Humanity's throwing away three space probes in the next 18 months. First Rosetta will join the Philae lander as a useless hunk of metal on comet 67/P. Next comes Cassini;s death dive, before Juno plunges into Jupiter in January 2018.

Aliens: if you are reading this, humanity is not a galactic litterbug. We just aren't sufficiently advanced to bring our probes home just yet. And as our careful disposal plan for Cassini shows, we are doing our best to be good citizens of space. ®

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