Cassini Grand Finale Death Dive to Occur on Friday
Orbiting and studying the ringed planet since 2004, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has unlocked a veritable treasure trove of information about Saturn, moons and our entire solar system. From breathtaking photos to discovering potential underground oceans, the mission has been an utter success. Unfortunately, time is up, fuel is out, and this Friday, September 15, the Cassini grand finale will end in the craft’s death dive into Saturn!
Why is the Cassini Grand Finale a Death Dive?
Surprisingly, the final dive is entirely intentional, even if a tad morbid. Upon discovering potential underground oceans, Saturn’s moon, Enceladus, has become a leading candidate for potential life and future space endeavors.
Therefore, if NASA were to allow Cassini to simply run out of fuel and continue lifelessly orbiting Saturn, a collision could eventually happen between the craft and Enceladus. NASA was unwilling to take that risk in fear of contamination with Earth-born microbes able to withstand the horrendous conditions of space. As a result, the Cassini grand finale will result in the craft disintegrating in the giant planet, ensuring no contamination.
When does the Cassini Grand Finale Happen?
Currently, Cassini is on its collision course to Saturn. As of Monday, September 11, the craft took one last close-up flyby of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Zooming within 120,000 km of the moon’s surface was enough to change the small probe’s trajectory, directing it towards the gas giant.
Here is the last photo Cassini took of Titan in its rearview as it blasts away toward Saturn. NASA engineers have deemed this sad photo the “goodbye kiss.”
Finally, Cassini is predicted to lose all signals with Earth at 7:55 a.m. EDT on Friday, September 15. Actually, loss of signal will have occurred 83 minutes prior to this time. Saturn’s tremendous distance from Earth means radio communication signals must travel across hundred of millions of miles to be received by our equipment.
However, NASA admits that as Saturn’s powerful gravity slows the craft during the Cassini grand finale final orbits, the time of signal loss may change.
How You Can Watch Cassini Grand Finale
While light-speed travel times render us unable to actually watch the Cassini grand finale in real-time, NASA is sharing other options.
Footage from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab Mission Control in Pasadena, CA will be streaming live for everyone to watch. Tuning in to this bittersweet moment will allow you to watch as NASA team members receive the last photos and data from Cassini.
Finally, please enjoy Astronimate’s favorite photos from the 13-year Cassini mission!