Home International How Cassini’s haunting Grand Finale unlocked Saturn’s secrets (VIDEOS)

How Cassini’s haunting Grand Finale unlocked Saturn’s secrets (VIDEOS)


On September 15, 2017 the NASA and ESA Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn ended when the probe was incinerated in the gas giant’s atmosphere. RT.com looks back at Cassini’s epic Grand Finale plunge prior to its fiery death.

Cassini blasted off from Earth on October 15, 1997. After a near-seven-year journey, it arrived at its destination, some 93 million miles from home. Yet it wasn’t until April 2017 that it began its final descent into Saturn. The Grand Finale began on April 26, when the intrepid probe went where nothing from Earth had gone before, dramatically diving between the planet and its vast ring system a total of 22 times.

Using its dish-shaped antenna as a shield against potentially-damaging space particles Cassini plunged through the gap.

As Cassini crossed Saturn’s ring plane it collected data using its Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument which is so sensitive it can detect the impact of minute dust particles touching off the spacecraft.

On April 27, NASA released stunning images of a giant hurricane on Saturn and the closest-ever photos of the planet’s atmosphere.

Then in early May, the space agency released an incredible movie of the probe’s first dive. It depicts the observations made as the spacecraft passed southward over Saturn on April 26.

The dive presented scientists with some interesting data, namely that the region appears to be relatively dust-free. It also marked the closest a spacecraft has ever been to Saturn. The footage shows Cassini’s journey, beginning with a swirling vortex at the planet’s north pole before moving past the outer boundary of the hexagon-shaped jet stream and beyond.

Cassini’s altitude above the clouds dropped from 45,000 to 4,200 miles (72,400 to 6,700km) as the movie frames were captured, decreasing the smallest resolvable features in the atmosphere from 5.4 miles (8.7km) per pixel to 0.5 miles (810 meters) per pixel.

But it wasn’t just images Cassini sent back, the spacecraft also beamed back an eerie empty recording of the space between Saturn’s rings. The recording, which was made on April 26, consists of mainly static with some erratic pings, signalling to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory that the area between Saturn’s rings consists of much less space dust than previously believed.