What did Nasa learn from Cassini's 20-year mission to Saturn?

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But the far-flung spacecraft will be unceremoniously destroyed when it enters the planet's gaseous atmosphere tomorrow night.

NASA's Cassini is now on course to crash into Saturn on September 15.

Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL, may have been the by-the-numbers guy in the presentation, but he also waxed poetic after stating that some 635 gigabytes of collected scientific data became part of almost 4,000 scientific papers. "It's going to do that for as long as it will possibly can".

Within seconds, the spacecraft will heat up, melting its aluminum, carbon fiber and mylar parts first.

"It's essentially now a real-time instrument", Maize said.

This will likely happen around 6:30 a.m. In fact, this will be the time that the radio signals reach mission control from Saturn - a trip that takes 83 minutes at the speed of light. After 13 years in orbit around Saturn, and hundreds of fly-bys of the moons it was sent to study, the Cassini probe has nearly run out of fuel. Enceladus has oceans beneath its ice and the presence of some of the necessary elements for life. The Cassini mission has given us answers to a lot of the outstanding questions that we had about this atmosphere - showing it to be similar to our own, with temperatures and pressures at Titan's surface meaning that methane can condense to a point where it creates clouds, and falls as rain. Cassini made a close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan on Monday, a pass that slightly shifted the spacecraft's trajectory and sent it on a path leading into Saturn's atmosphere. Such contamination could harm or create potential life. It send back some gorgeous snapshots along the way and, now that its extended mission is complete, it's time for the spacecraft to perform the ultimate sacrifice. In particular, the spacecraft's ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which will be directly sampling the atmosphere's composition, will potentially offer insights into the giant planet's formation and evolution, according to NASA.

Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini discovered four of Saturn moons in the 17th century, although scientists have since identified more than 60.

The spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn and its moons since it arrived at the ringed planet in 2004.

NASA's Deep Space Network complex in Canberra, Australia will receive the last transmissions, barring a torrential rainfall in the region. "The success with which Cassini brought together scientists from many different countries must be included in the long list of Cassini legacies".

It's also a loss for many of us humans who don't depend on it for scientific data.

The gas was a sign of hydrothermal activity favorable to life, scientists said in April when they unveiled the finding.

"The discovery of Enceladus' plumes was my launchpad onto the mission, because the imaging team had no one assigned to design and acquire images of those spectacular plumes", Verbiscer said. "And we've left the world informed, but still wondering", he added. "I couldn't ask for more". "We've got to go back, I know it". The lessons learned from the last 13 years will carry forward to the Europa Clipper, a planned mission to Jupiter's icy moon in the 2020s.

"Because of planetary protection, and our desire to go back to Enceladus, and go back to Titan", said Jim Green, the leader of NASA's planetary science program, "we must protect those bodies for future exploration".

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