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NASA Cassini spacecraft crashes into Saturn: A failure or a calculated success?

This is an artist's conception of Cassini doing one of its exploratory dives between Saturn and its innermost ring (Image courtesy of NASA)

This is an artist’s conception of Cassini doing one of its exploratory dives between Saturn and its innermost ring (Image courtesy of NASA)

After 20 years in the cold void of space, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft ran out of fuel and crashed into Saturn. This sounds like a very expensive failure by NASA—-but it is NOT! , here’s why:

This year, 2017, marks the 13th year Cassini has been orbiting Saturn after a seven-year trip from Earth. Rocket fuel was running low as its last fuel amount was used for adjusting its course before mission operators would lose control of the course of the spacecraft. This was expected and planned.

One of Cassini’s amazing pieces of data was that the two moons of Saturn, Enceladus and Titan, have the potential to contain habitable – or at least “prebiotic” – environments; that is, they are capable of stimulating bacteria growth in a Primordial Soup .

NASA has chosen to safely disintegrate the spacecraft in Saturn’s atmosphere to avoid the unlikely possibility of Cassini someday colliding with one of those two moons, keeping them more pristine for future exploration and detailed examination. In this way Cassini will not contaminate any future studies of habitability and potential life on those moons.

Cassini had 12 science instruments which collected a wide range of information about the Saturnian environment. These sophisticated devices took images across the infrared, visible and ultraviolet light spectra, detected dust particles, and characterized Saturn's plasma environment and magnetosphere. (Image courtesy of NASA)

Cassini had 12 science instruments which collected a wide range of information about the Saturnian environment. These sophisticated devices took images across the infrared, visible and ultraviolet light spectra, detected dust particles, and characterized Saturn's plasma environment and magnetosphere. (Image courtesy of NASA)

According to NASA, Cassini has been one of the most scientifically rich voyages yet undertaken in our solar system.

Witness the grand finale and see Cassini’s amazing journey here in a computer-animation by NASA.

5 comments on “NASA Cassini spacecraft crashes into Saturn: A failure or a calculated success?

  1. D Feucht
    September 19, 2017

    One practical engineering reason for crashing the Cassini spacecraft into Saturn was the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator (RTG) onboard, which runs on plutonium. Better to contain it to Saturn than pollute a viable future colony of a moon of Saturn. The Apollo lunar excursion modules also had RTGs, and the Apollo 13 LEM, with RTG aboard, is somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, near the Mindanao Trench.

  2. Steve Taranovich
    September 19, 2017

    @D Feucht—Excellent point!

  3. Jean-Luc.Suchail
    September 20, 2017

    This not a failure at all, everything was under control. Mission was end of life (out of  fuel), therefore the spacecraft was going to be lost anyway, and the last few orbits brought a lot of science data for years to come to be analysed. I witnessed the last minutes and up to the loss of the X-band signal dy the DSN in Camberra we now have a fantastic knowledge on Saturn's atmosphere. Well done.

  4. David Ashton
    September 20, 2017

    I am in total awe of missions like this.  20-year old electronics, still working reliably nearly 1.5 billion km away.  Kudos to the designers.  Those who bemoan the lack of space activity after the Apollo missions (and I used to be one of them) should look at projects like this.

  5. Steve Taranovich
    September 20, 2017

    Hi David—And how about Voyager 1—it's still going! Launched in 1977—in space for 40 years!

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