Fireball ending set for Saturn explorer Cassini after 20-year voyage

Cassini conducted its last flyby of Titan this Monday, the final one before its death plunge this Friday.

The spacecraft made its closest approach to Titan today at 12:04pm PDT (3:04pm EDT), at an altitude of 73,974 miles (119,049 kilometers) above the moon’s surface. This was reported as having taken place on September 11, at 12:04 p.m. PDT or 03:04 p.m. EDT.

Cassini made its final, distant flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan on September 11, which set the spacecraft on its final dive toward the planet.

As the spacecraft is once again back online, it also began streaming back the data it gathered during its latest encounter with the moon.

Astronomers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s (CSIRO) Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC) have been charged with recording the craft’s final moments, after monitoring the spacecraft through “every step of its journey”, including its launch in 1997 and the confirmation of its successful orbit of Saturn in 2004. But for a few of hours before that, the spacecraft will live-stream a deluge of data to Earth in its last hurrah before burning up in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, said: “Cassini has transformed our thinking in so many ways”.

NASA writes that this last distant encounter is informally referred to by the mission engineers as “the goodbye kiss“.

Now that is has used up nearly every bit of its rocket propellant, the space agency said, operators will deliberately plunge Cassini into the planet to ensure its moons remain pristine for future exploration. No spacecraft has ever ventured so close to the planet before. During its time there, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean with indications of hydrothermal activity within the icy moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on another moon, Titan. NASA later updated its post and confirmed that Cassini was back in contact with the mission’s ground controllers.

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