NASA's Mission To Saturn Is Over — But These Facts Will Leave You Breathless For a Lifetime

I have a sincere answer to the question, “What did you want to be when you were a kid?”

I wanted to be an astronaut.

In fact, I still do, and now that SpaceX has worked out most of its kinks, I’d be the first to volunteer for a citizen crew.

And while that my not be a reality — for now — I instead have long been living vicariously through the ongoing missions of NASA.

So it is with a little sadness that I watched as the Cassini-Huygens Saturn Mission (more commonly known as simply Cassini) ended this past week with a glorious plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn. Cassini spent the past 13 exploring Saturn, collecting a mountain of data and amazing photos of the mysterious planet and its many moons.

And while the images alone would have been enough to satisfy all aspiring space adventurers, Cassini actually accomplished a great deal more than any of us even noticed. Here are just a few of the amazing facts about the Cassini Mission.

  • The mission was named after Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), a Dutch scientist who is credited for discovering Saturn’s rings, its largest moon (Titan), and the narrow gap that separates Saturn’s rings known as the “Cassini Division.”
  • Cassini launched on October 15, 1997 on a million mile journey to Saturn and entered Saturn’s orbit just seven years later on July 1, 2004.
  • Cassini was big, about the size of a 30-passenger school bus, and weighed roughly 6 tons (5,600 kg), half of which was rocket fuel. It is the heaviest unmanned spacecraft ever launched into space.
  • The spacecraft was powered by nuclear thermoelectric generators, fueled by 65 pounds (30 kilograms) of plutonium.
  • Because of its size, Cassini required a significant amount of speed to reach Saturn. To achieve this, the mission used “gravitational slingshotting” to generate speed. Essentially, the mission included two passes of Venus and one by each Earth and Jupiter before it had enough momentum to make it to Saturn.

    All of this required a unique alignment of the planets (not to mention a heck of lot of math and brainpower), which happens once every 600 years.

  • The Cassini Mission was originally meant to spend only four years around Saturn but was extended after several successful attempts. It ended up spending 13 years passing around Saturn and its moons collecting data.
  • The mission successfully landed a module (the Huygens part of the spacecraft) on Saturn’s moon of Titan on January 14, 2005, the first landing accomplished in the outer solar system and the first on a planetary moon other than Earth’s own.
  • The Huygens probe discovered on Titan many geologic features similar to Earth, as well as organic molecules that could be capable of generating organic, alien life.
  • Saturn is between 71 to 86 light minutes from Earth (depending on the orbits), which means a significant amount of power is required to send data back. Cassini actually introduced revolutionary technology that enabled it to continue working longer that originally anticipated. According to Dr. James Dayton, the Founder and Chief Technology Officer of Teraphysics, one of the original scientists who developed the technology, “Enhancements to traveling wave tube (TWT), a radio frequency amplifier used on communication satellites and deep space probes, was used on the NASA Cassini mission to Saturn, (during which) these amplifiers transmitted more than 900 gigabytes of data back to earth, resulting in the publication of some 4000 scientific papers.”
  • The mission included flyby’s — 162 of them — of several of Saturn’s 53 moons.
  • Cassini traveled a total of 4.9 billion miles (7.9 billion kilometers).
  • In April 2017, nearly seven years after the original planned conclusion of the mission, Cassini initiated its “grand finale,” a series of bold and risky passes by Saturn, the closest the probe had ever gotten to the planet. After the 22nd and last pass, it ran out of fuel and, traveling at 69,368 mph (111,637 kph), was allowed to be de-orbited and burn up in Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

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