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NASA Space

NASA's Cassini Probe Begins Its 'Grand Finale' Through Saturn's Atmosphere (space.com) 44

An anonymous reader quotes Space.com: After orbiting Saturn for more than 13 years, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is getting ready to say goodbye. On Monday (August 14), Cassini made the first of five passes through Saturn's upper atmosphere, kicking off the last phase of the mission's "Grand Finale." After completing those five dives, Cassini will come back around again one last time, plunging into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15. This will be a suicide maneuver: Cassini will burn up in the ringed planet's thick air, turning into a meteor in the Saturn sky...

Cassini's radar will be able to look into the atmosphere and see features as small as 16 miles (25 km) wide, about 100 times smaller than what it could see from its usual orbital positions. The Grand Finale will include one final swing by Saturn's largest moon, Titan, on Sept. 11. Titan's gravity will slow Cassini's orbit around Saturn and bend its path to send the spacecraft toward its September 15 encounter with the planet... Cassini will keep sending back data on September 15 until it gets to an altitude where atmospheric density is about twice what it encountered during its final five passes, NASA officials said. At that point, mission controllers will lose contact with the probe because its thrusters won't be able to keep Cassini's antenna pointed toward Earth; there will simply be too much air to push against.

The second dip happens this weekend, and NASA has created a special web page tracking Cassini's current location for its final 28 days.
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NASA's Cassini Probe Begins Its 'Grand Finale' Through Saturn's Atmosphere

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  • If it turns out that Enceladus and Titan are sterile, but that Saturn has life, then this action by NASA will be quite a blunder.

    • Re-entry at Saturn orbital speed should completely evaporate the probe, no chance of anything surviving. It took real heroics on the Galileo probe to survive Jupiter re-entry

    • We know enough about Earth biology to know that any microbes will not survive in Saturn. That's what matters for preventing contamination.

  • They should bring the probe back to earth to recycle the components into new probes.

    • That would have made the probe prohibitively heavier due to the huge amount of propellant needed for the return journey.

      Also, the electronics are obsolete (30 years old) and radiation-damaged, so why bother retrieving them? The only component it'd make sense to recycle is the RTG (which should be at 70% of its original capacity by now).

  • Just had a brilliant idea, surely it can't fail. How about a KickStarter to save the venerable spacecraft? Action would need to be taken very soon though. Who's in?
  • If there's any civilization at all in Saturn... regardless how privimitive or advanced it is... they'll think that an alien ship has crashed into their planet and they will begin searching for the responsible planet that may or may not have killed their civilians :)

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