CU Boulder scientists ready for Cassini mission to Saturn grand finale


The UVIS instrument suite, a set of telescopes used to measure ultraviolet light from the Saturn system, has been used to study the structure and evolution of Saturn's rings; the chemistry, clouds and energy balance of Saturn and Titan; and the surfaces and atmospheres of some of Saturn's 62 known moons, said Esposito.

The $3.2 billion Cassini-Huygens mission - a joint effort between NASA and the European Space Agency - launched toward Saturn in October 1997 and arrived in July 2004. It has sent over 400,000 images back home.

The end is nigh for NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which is now less than 48 hours away from its scheduled death dive into Saturn.

Soon, the craft will reach the end of its journey.

This distant encounter is referred to informally as "the goodbye kiss" by Dr. Maize and colleagues, because it provides a gravitational nudge that sends the spacecraft toward its dramatic ending in Saturn's upper atmosphere.

Live mission commentary and video from JPL Mission Control will air on NASA Television from 7 to 8:30 a.m. EDT (4 5:30 a.m. PDT) on September 15.

"Not only do we have an environment [at Saturn] that is just overwhelming in its abundance of scientific mysteries and puzzles, we got a spacecraft and a team that could exploit it", Maize said.

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Geysers from Saturn's moon Enceladus are depicted in this image created using images from the Cassini probe. The spacecraft's fateful dive is the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings.

An illustration of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through the water plumes of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus.

"It's truly a first-of-its-kind event at Saturn".

Rather than risk contaminating the two moons with Earth bugs, or further contaminating Titan after the Huygens landing, plans were made for Cassini's safe disposal. While the odds of that happening might be slim, the results would be devastating, and could make it impossible for scientists to identify any alien life-forms that might live on those moons. "We have some of the border, some of the regions, and we're trying to put together the picture of the Saturn system".

Due to the travel time for radio signals from Saturn, which changes as both Earth and the ringed planet travel around the Sun, events now take place there 86 minutes before they are observed on Earth.

"To find that there's an ocean world so tiny with a possibility of life, so far from the sun - 10 times farther from the sun than the Earth - has opened up our paradigm of where you might look for life, both within our own solar system, and in the exoplanet systems beyond", Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist and a planetary scientist at NASA JPL, said of Enceladus during the press conference.