5. Oktober 2018
New research emerging from the final orbits of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft represents a huge leap forward in our understanding of the Saturn system — especially the mysterious, never-before-explored region between the planet and its rings. Some preconceived ideas are turning out to be wrong while new questions are being raised.
Six teams of researchers are publishing their work today, Oct 5th, in the journal Science, based on findings from Cassini’s Grand Finale. That’s when, as the spacecraft was running out of fuel, the mission team steered Cassini spectacularly close to Saturn in 22 orbits before deliberately vaporizing it in a final plunge into the atmosphere in September 2017.
Knowing Cassini’s days were numbered, its mission team went for gold. The spacecraft flew where it was never designed to fly. For the first time, it probed Saturn’s magnetized environment, flew through icy, rocky ring particles and sniffed the atmosphere in the 1,200-mile-wide (2,000-kilometer-wide) gap between the rings and the cloud tops. Not only did the flight path push the spacecraft to its limits, the new findings illustrate how powerful and agile the instruments were.
Many more Grand Finale science results are to come, but here are some of today’s highlights:
For the Cassini mission, the science rolling out from Grand Finale orbits more than justifies the calculated risk of diving into the gap — skimming the upper atmosphere and skirting the edge of the inner rings, said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker.
„Almost everything going on in that region turned out to be a surprise,“ Spilker said. „That was the importance of going there, to explore a place we’d never been before. And the expedition really paid off — the data is tremendously exciting.“
Analysis of Cassini data from the spacecraft’s instruments will be ongoing for years to come, helping to paint a clearer picture of Saturn.
„Many mysteries remain, as we put together pieces of the puzzle,“ Spilker said.
The first illustration shows NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn. The second illustration shows NASA’s Cassini spacecraft about to make one of its dives between Saturn and its innermost rings as part of the mission’s Grand Finale. NASA/JPL-Caltech
Cassini made 22 orbits that swooped between the rings and the planet before ending its mission on Sept. 15, 2017, with a final plunge into Saturn.