Grand Finale (07:22)
Scientists and their families gathered at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena in April 2017 to witness the end of Cassini’s mission. The 5,000-pound spacecraft had explored the Saturn system for more than a decade, and it would now dive between the gas giant and its rings.
Gas Giant Facts and Observations (04:17)
Saturn was named after the Roman god of agriculture and wealth. It is the second largest planet in the solar system, comprised mostly of hydrogen and helium. The Cassini team was able to observe changes in a hexagonal structure at its north pole and a historic storm.
Closer Than Ever Before (04:00)
The team gathered at JPL two days after Cassini’s first dive to make a critical decision. Should they put the spacecraft in harm’s way again? The probe was 20 years old, and its computing power was less than the average smart phone of today.
Pioneering Astronomers (04:02)
A handful of 17th century astronomers strove to develop a revolutionary new tool: the telescope. Astronomer Christiaan Hugyens used it to establish that Saturn was ringed in 1656. French astronomer Jean-Dominique Cassini found six moons, and he established that Saturn had multiple rings.
Return to the Gas Giant (04:47)
The Pioneer 11 space probe flew by Saturn in 1979, and Voyager’s state-of-the art cameras arrived a year later, exceeding expectations. Nineteen countries pooled their talent and resources to launch Cassini into space on Oct. 15, 1997. The Huygens probe was designed to rendezvous with Titan.
Wet Moon With Orange Sky (03:27)
Cassini continued to study Titan over the next decade, making more than a hundred flybys. The probe discovered massive dunes next to long, river-like channels. Titan had liquid on its surface, much like Earth, though it was not water.
Lunar Ocean (06:19)
Titan was not the only moon to pique the Cassini team’s interest; Saturn has 62 and counting. Among the most surprising satellite was ice-covered Enceladus, which had plumes spewing from its oddly smooth south pole.
Bands of Dust and Ice (03:55)
Not only did the plumes of Enceladus offer tantalizing clues to life beyond Earth, their icy particles formed Saturn’s outermost ring. The planet’s rings are formed by billions of particles that span 90,000 miles into space; yet they are only tens of meters thick in most places.
Solar System Formation (03:15)
Researcher Matthew Tiscareno discovered propeller-like objects spinning in Saturn’s rings. Some scientists suggested that these objects could provide clues into how the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago; they were like smaller versions of primordial planets.
Probing Saturn's Interior (06:29)
The Cassini team sought to determine whether Saturn’s rings formed at the same time as the gas giant or later. Scientists received strange readings when they used a magnetometer to probe the planet’s surface, raising questions about the planet’s magnetic field.
Final Hour (03:00)
The Cassini mission came to an end on Sept. 15, 2017. The probe traveled at speeds exceeding 70,000 miles per hour as it entered Saturn’s upper atmosphere. Communication with Earth ceased and the craft broke apart as it plunged below the cloud tops.
Credits: Death Dive to Saturn (01:02)
Credits: Death Dive to Saturn
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