Saturn orbiter fights for science to the end

JPL Mission Control
Cassini project manager Earl Maize hugs Julie Webster, spacecraft operations team manager, at Mission Control at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory just after the mission’s end. Program scientist Linda Spilker is at left, and Jim Green, the head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, is at right. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

Before its destruction, the bus-sized Cassini spacecraft fought Saturn’s buffeting atmosphere to send back scientific data for even longer than NASA thought it would.

But the end was inevitable: Twenty years after its launch, and 13 years after its arrival at the ringed planet, the final signals from Cassini were received at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at 4:55:46 a.m. PT today.

“I’m going to call this the end of mission,” Cassini project manager Earl Maize declared, during an early-morning webcast that was watched by tens of thousands. “Project manager, off the net.”

The end was pre-ordained days earlier, when a final maneuver put the spacecraft on a course to dive into Saturn’s upper atmosphere. NASA meticulously planned out the controlled descent to make sure there was no chance that Cassini could crash into one of Saturn’s moons, which are certain to be targets for future missions.

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By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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