Yesterday, NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn came to a fiery end as it plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere and burned up. Cassini was launched on October 15th, 1997 as a joint collaboration between NASA and the European Space Agency, and after having spent almost twenty years in space, thirteen of them in the Saturnian system, it was unprecedented in that it was the first and only spacecraft to launch and successfully land a probe on the moon of another planet.
The Huygens lander separated from Cassini on Christmas Day, 2004. When it landed on Titan less than a month later, it returned data for around 90 minutes before ceasing to operate. The images Huygens returned were the first views of a mysterious, never-seen world that had aroused curiosity and wonder for many years due to it being the only known moon in the solar system that has an atmosphere. It was also suspected to have lakes or possibly seas, which was confirmed by the presence of lakes that are probably composed of liquid methane and ethane.
NASA has had their failures, but when they get it right, they really get it right, and the Cassini mission is one of their best to date. NASA will be studying the information gained from this mission for quite some time to come. As a final thought, here’s a video that is probably a fairly realistic depiction of Cassini’s last moments, but at any rate, it’s a fitting memorial to a spacecraft that served well us all well for nearly two decades.
TC Williamson is an American expat living in the UK. He is a U.S. Navy veteran (submarines). You can follow him on Twitter.