Cassini’s Last Moments, in Gory Detail

Cassini’s remaining life is now totalled in days.


On Sep 12, 3 days before NASA’s veteran Saturn path-finder plunges into a planet’s atmosphere, a booster will whip around a misty moon Titan in a slingshot scheme that will sign a fate.

During these final days, Cassini will take one final demeanour around. Onboard cameras will snap cinema of Titan and a hydrocarbon lakes, Saturn’s innermost rings, a weird hexagon-shaped jet tide during Saturn’s north pole, and other targets. On a dusk of Sep 14, Cassini will send this final print manuscript to Earth, about 1.4 billion kilometers away, and a engineers during NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena will post them online.

After that, no some-more cinema will be taken. But 7 other instruments will continue to accumulate information on a chemical combination of Saturn’s atmosphere, a sobriety and captivating fields, a innermost deviation belts, and a rings—for as prolonged as they can. “We’ll be transmitting a scholarship information behind roughly as quick as we accumulate it,” says Tom Burk, Cassini’s opinion control group lead.

The scientists and engineers who work Cassini have prolonged famous a finish was coming, since they designed it. After 13 years in circuit around Saturn, a spacecraft’s fuel is using low, and rather than risk an rash pile-up into Titan or a icy moon Enceladus, NASA motionless to drive it into Saturn’s atmosphere.

The final circuit starts with a final pass over Saturn’s north stick in a early morning hours of Sep 15. Descending during 34 kilometers per second, or about 76,000 mph, toward a equator, a booster will drop into a top atmosphere and sojourn in daylight, above Saturn’s ring plane, until a really end.

The world doesn’t have a plain surface, so JPL moody engineers use another pen to lane a spacecraft’s descent:  a indicate during that Saturn’s windy vigour is equal to sea turn vigour on Earth, a place they call “1-bar.” That’s about 60,000 km, or usually over 37,000 miles, from a hulk planet’s center.

Cassini will initial “feel” a wispy hydrogen in a planet’s hydrogen-helium atmosphere around 1,700 kilometers above that point, however, where Saturn’s atmosphere is 100 billion times thinner than during a 1-bar level. Since Cassini will be relocating fast, a transition from a opening of space to a atmosphere should be detectable. This initial windy entrance is coming to occur during 3:44 a.m. Pacific Time on Sep 15. As aerodynamic army start to yank during a spacecraft, that is 22 feet high and about 13 feet wide, a hydrazine thrusters will start banishment to keep a receiver oriented toward Earth.

By a time Cassini drops to 1,200 km above 1-bar, aerodynamic drag will overcome a thrusters’ ability to keep a receiver sealed on Earth. As a booster starts to tumble, hit will be mislaid and a goal will strictly end. “The thrusters were never designed to say opinion control in a stratosphere of Saturn,” Burk says with a laugh. Between one and dual mins will pass from a time Cassini enters a atmosphere to a time hit is lost.

The Final Minutes

After that, Cassini’s passing will come quickly, substantially within 4 minutes.

NASA competence collect adult some increases in heat when Cassini initial starts to feel a atmosphere, says Brett Pugh, Cassini’s thermal engineer, who has modeled what is coming to occur during a spacecraft’s final moments. But it’s some-more coming that light heating will be initial rescued a small reduce than that, during 1,600 km—particularly during a spacecraft’s heading corner and a categorical engine.

At 1,400 km, heating of a booster due to a barrage of particular molecules in Saturn’s atmosphere is coming to be about 1,400 watts per block meter. That’s same to a regard we feel from fever on Earth. But once Cassini starts tumbling, a heat will stand dramatically—about 50- to 100-fold any minute.

The booster will coming remove a multilayer insulation first, as it chars and breaks away. Because Saturn’s top atmosphere is mostly hydrogen, Cassini won’t technically bake adult as it would above Earth. Instead, a front of electrically charged gas, or plasma, will heat during a heading edge.

At 1,100 km above 1-bar, a vast plate receiver and 36-foot-long magnetometer bang will weaken, warp and mangle off. At 800 km, other outmost components will start disintegrating, followed by a booster structure itself during 700 km.

At 600 to 700 km above 1-bar, Cassini’s fuel tanks are coming to raze from a buildup of pressure. On this final day, usually about 60 kilograms of diesel and oxidizer will be left in a tanks (compared to 3,000 kg when it launched in 1997). Another 30 kilograms of hydrazine fuel that reserve Cassini’s thrusters will sojourn in a third tank.

“Once a tank explodes, it’ll substantially take out a tank subsequent to it, so we competence get a detonate of fire during that indicate if a diesel and oxidizer mix,” Pugh says. “Seconds after that, there will be zero left.”

Cassini won’t coming fire opposite Saturn’s sky like a sharpened star; but oxygen in Saturn’s atmosphere, there will be no combustion. Nevertheless, Cassini will knowledge temperatures coming a aspect of a sun, about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

By a time it reaches about 350 km above 1-bar, a same altitude that a International Space Station orbits Earth, Cassini will be no more. Back on Earth, Cassini’s moody engineers design to accept Cassini’s final radio delivery during 5:08 am Sep 15—nearly an hour and a half after NASA’s Saturn path-finder will have upheld into history.


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