Threading the needle with Cassini at Saturn

The hugely successful Cassini mission to Saturn will come to a fiery end in September, and you can hardly blame NASA for going a little Star Trek on us.

Ron Hobbs

Ron Hobbs. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We’re going somewhere where no spacecraft has ever gone before, into this region between the glorious rings of Saturn and the cloud tops of the planet,” said Ron Hobbs, a NASA Solar System Ambassador, at this month’s meeting of the Seattle Astronomical Society. After 22 orbits through the eye of that needle—a 2,500-kilometer-wide gap—they’ll splat Cassini into the planet and burn it up.

“Now that we’ve discovered that there’s at least one moon, and maybe several, that could have the conditions for life, it’s very important to not leave a derelict spacecraft orbiting around Saturn,” Hobbs noted. “One of the important things at the end of the solstice mission will be to dispose of the spacecraft.”

The second extended mission of Cassini was named solstice because it is almost the beginning of summer in Saturn’s northern hemisphere.

Let’s do science

Before they crash Cassini, they figured there was some time to do some great science in that place where no spacecraft has ever gone. Most importantly, they will get a better picture of the internal structure of Saturn and examine its ionosphere, inner radiation belts, and auroral region.

“This would have been worth sending a spacecraft to Saturn for just that measurement,” Hobbs said, noting that it is essentially what Juno is doing at Jupiter. They’ll also check out the particles of Saturn’s D ring at close range, and be able to better gauge the mass of the ring system, which will help pin down its age.

“I can’t wait for the pictures,” Hobbs added. “The pictures that come out of this mission are just going to be spectacular.”

Shooting the gap

Hobbs said NASA has been using interactions between Cassini and Saturn’s moon Titan to nudge the spacecraft’s orbit to where they want it to be.

“Titan is really the only object in Saturn orbit that has enough mass to allow it to do gravitational assists and re-direct its orbit,” he said. “That allows [Cassini] to change its orbit and change the plane of its orbit.”

Cassini orbits

This graphic shows the closest approaches, or periapses, of Cassini’s final two orbital phases.The ring-grazing orbits are shown in gray; grand finale orbits are shown in blue. The orange line shows the spacecraft’s final plunge into Saturn. Credit: NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory – Caltech

In late November a brush with Titan dropped Cassini’s perichron—the point closest to Saturn in its orbit around the planet—down to just outside the F ring. In April, another Titan flyby will drop that perichron down to between the D ring and Saturn’s cloud tops.

“That’s when it’s going to get really exciting,” Hobbs said. Cassini will do 22 “grand finale” orbits through the eye of this needle, each lasting six days, collecting science data until one final encounter with Titan puts the spacecraft on a trajectory to splat into the planet on September 15.

It’s amazing how much planning and politics went into all of this. Hobbs said the actual trajectories of the orbits for this grand finale were determined a little over three years ago. Ever since then there’s been a spirited discussion between scientists, engineers, and mission leaders about what science to do to get as much data as possible out of the final mission. That determination was just completed last month.

“The spacecraft drivers are now writing the code for these orbits,” Hobbs said. That will tell Cassini where to go and where to point its instruments to make the observations as planned.

A good ride

Hobbs noted that Cassini was launched in October 1997, and so will end its mission just shy of twenty years in space.

“Without a doubt it has been one of the most successful and audacious missions NASA and the international community have operated,” he said. “This is going to be one of the highlights of space exploration in the last couple of decades.”

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