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SALT LAKE CITY — Early this morning, an unmanned spacecraft traveling at 77,000 miles per hour sent its final data transmissions back to earth as it willingly plunged into Saturn’s gaseous atmosphere and disappeared forever.
For the last 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn while recording data on the planet and its most interesting features. With water, gasses, space dust, asteroids and at least 53 moons in its orbit, Saturn could be viewed as a microcosm of our solar system.
“You really can think of it as a planetary system on its own,” said Ben Bromely, the physics and astronomy chair at the University of Utah.
Because no planet in our solar system has such a diversity of material present in its orbit, Cassini gave astronomers and researchers like Bromely the chance to investigate a range of questions that are relevant to our broader understanding of the cosmos.
Bromely studies the processes that lead to the formation of planets, and he is particularly interested in what Cassini has revealed about Saturn’s moons.
“It has informed us about fundamental processes that take place among planetary material and other stars,” Bromely notes. “So, it’s really like a laboratory for how things have formed. In that way, it tells us more directly about the formation of other planets like earth.”
Measuring 22 feet across, Cassini weighed about 6.2 tons when it was launched in 1997. About half of that weight was fuel, which was nearly spent when Cassini pierced Saturn’s inhospitable upper atmosphere and made its final recordings of precious data that could only be obtained by means of a suicide mission.
The other half of that weight included a dozen instruments and a detachable probe with six instruments of its own that parachuted onto the surface of the moon Titan in 2005. Cassini’s instruments continuously recorded physical, electrical and magnetic data for scientists like Bromely to interpret.
Among those instruments were a pair of digital cameras, which sent back over 400,000 incredible images that anyone can appreciate.
Here are just a few of the highlights:
To see a full gallery, visit NASA’s Cassini website. The Cassini-Huygens mission was supported by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.
Robert Lawrence has worked in academic research and public health and now writes about science. He studied biochemistry at the University of Utah and Arizona State University. You can find more of his work at www.robertlawrencephd.com.