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Saturn probe will go out in a blaze of science

Cassini orbiter
An artist’s conception shows the Cassini orbiter zooming through the upper layers of Saturn’s atmosphere, heading for a fiery breakup. (NASA / JPL-Caltech Illustration)

Twenty years after its launch to Saturn, NASA has set the Cassini orbiter on a course for certain destruction on Sept. 15 – but there’s a decidedly positive spin to the $3.3 billion mission’s end.

“We’ll be saddened, there’s no doubt about it, at the loss of such an incredible machine,” Cassini program manager Earl Maize said Sept. 13 during a news briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “But I think all of us are going to have a great sense of pride in .. a little bit corny, perhaps … a ‘mission accomplished.’”

The bus-sized, plutonium-powered spacecraft was launched in 1997 and reached Saturn seven years later. It’s logged 4.9 billion miles, sent back nearly half a million images of the ringed planet and its moons, and transmitted 635 gigabytes worth of scientific data so far.

It’ll continue sending data all the way to the end, when it’s expected to break apart and burn up in the upper levels of Saturn’s atmosphere.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributing editor at GeekWire, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. Check out "About Alan Boyle" for more fun facts.

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