Space.com reports: After examining Saturn from up close for 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft is ending its long career with a boom — and there’s an important reason why.
Friday morning (Sept. 15), Cassini will complete the orbital pirouettes of its seven-year Solstice Mission and complete a self-destructing descent into Saturn’s atmosphere. This fierce ending is dramatic for a purpose: It will prevent Earth microbes from contaminating Saturn’s nearby moons.
When NASA’s Cassini spacecraft completed its first tour of Saturn in 2008, the mission team had to decide what would come next. [Cassini’s Saturn Crash 2017: How to Watch Its ‘Grand Finale’]
Cassini could have parted ways with the ringed planet. In 2009, studies showed that Cassini had enough fuel to reach Uranus or Neptune. Cassini could have traveled in the other direction, toward Jupiter, or it could have been sent to visit an assembly of asteroids known as the Centaurs in the outer limits of the solar system.
Instead, scientists chose to continue making discoveries about Saturn and its moons — first through a two-year extended mission known as the Cassini Equinox Mission, and then with a second extension in 2010 that would bring the spacecraft to the very limit of the fuel it carried. That made it clear that Cassini’s third mission, the Solstice Mission, would be how the spacecraft would end its career. It was during these missions that scientists discovered that two of Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, showed signs that they were well suited to life. But why the fiery plummet?
“The spacecraft will burn up and disintegrate like a meteor in the upper atmosphere of Saturn,” Preston Dyches, of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), told Space.com via email. “This was determined to be the best way to ensure the safe disposal of the spacecraft, so that there would be no chance of future contamination of Enceladus by any hardy microbes that might have stowed away on board all these years.” [Continue reading…]