Saturn spacecraft’s final goodbye

June 16, 2017

Saturn spacecraft’s final goodbye

The 1997 launch of the Cassini – the first probe sent to Saturn. Photo: Supplied

A Kiwi scientist says a part of him will die when a spacecraft orbiting Saturn is vaporised into the planet’s atmosphere, 20 years after it was launched.

NASA’s Cassini is running low on propellant and, with concerns the probe could contaminate one of Saturn’s moons, it has been committed to a “death spiral” which will conclude in September.

Otago Museum director Dr Ian Griffin was working at a science museum in Florida in 1997 and watched the Cassini, one of the biggest rockets to launch out of the Cape Canaveral launch site, leave the atmosphere.

“I was standing atop a museum roof some 20km away from the launch site and then when the rocket left it was like the whole night-time became day and this fiery tower of light shot up into space. It was one of the most amazing things that I saw when I was in Florida.”

Dr Griffin said the Cassini’s mission had “transformed our understanding of Saturn” and was a “phenomenal success” for the human race.

He said he felt a connection to the spacecraft since seeing the start of its billion kilometre journey and now felt that part of his life “is going to disappear when Cassini burns up in September”.

“Saturn is the most beautiful planet. I mean when you first see Saturn through a telescope I defy anybody not to be moved by the experience. When you look at it and you see this little tiny orb surrounded by this incredible system of rings it just brings a smile to your face.”

Dr Brad Tucker, an astronomer at the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University, said the Cassini played an integral part in mapping out Saturn and its moons.

“It’s inspired everyone to really focus on launching another mission to the Saturnian system because it has been so successful.”

Dr Tucker said the Cassini discovered an ocean on one of Saturn’s neighbouring moons, Titan, just last month and has previously found rivers and lakes on the surface.

He said there was a very good chance life existed on either Titan or Enceladus, another moon, which could be threatened by Earth bacteria on the Cassini if it crash landed.

The next stage, said Dr Tucker, was to follow the lead of Mars exploratory programmes.

“We have rovers on the ground on Mars, doing samples. We need to start doing that on the moons of Saturn because if we can send a probe down and have it working on one of those moons we will probably find life.”

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