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Saying goodbye to Cassini and the Saturn system

Wed May 17, 2017 10:22 am

I gotta say, Cassini has been a hell of a flagship mission for NASA. I'm gonna be sad to see it go, but the wealth of data returned is staggering. The understanding already gained and the new mysteries to solve are really exciting. And who can forget the first discovery of lakes and rivers on the surface of another world? And the first pictures of the surface of a world shrouded in clouds since Venera managed to beam a couple images back from Venus in the 1970s?

Some of the images are absolutely breathtaking. I consider Saturn, though named for a male deity, to be the queen of the solar system. Wide shots of the whole planet, flattened a little from its fast spin, rings in full glory and a whole host of attendant moons. The mysterious hexagonal polar vortex wreathed in swirling storms. Tethys hanging like a bauble with the rings and ring shadows in the background.

Here are a few:

Cassini will fall into Saturn's atmosphere and burn up on September 15. Before that happens, mission planners have Cassini doing a series of very close dives in between the planet and its rings. Expect another trove of fantastic images.

JPL has put out an animated short about Cassini's end. It's available up to 1440p - I suggest watching it in full screen.
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Re: Saying goodbye to Cassini and the Saturn system

Wed May 17, 2017 2:03 pm

No doubt Cassini has been a resounding success! The data and images gathered are pure gold, and we've learned so much about Saturn and it's moons. Hopefully we will send another mission to Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan that can detect life forms in the near future.
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Re: Saying goodbye to Cassini and the Saturn system

Wed May 17, 2017 9:55 pm

It should be a hell of an ending for that big old Cassini spacecraft, incredible to see it still operational after all this time.

I first became more aware of the mission via what passed for late night TV in the UK of the early 1990's, the Open University did a doc called 'Design For An Alien World', in 1992/3, where a group of nerdy young men, seemingly from central casting, at a UK university, were designing a lander for Titan, to be a major part of the ESA contribution to this US built and US launched orbiter. Problem was, what was Titan like? The Voyagers could not see through the clouds and were fly by's. Was the surface a vast ocean of hydrocarbons, or a frozen version, or something in between, maybe a thin crust that could support the small lander or maybe not. What if it lands in a hydrocarbon lake, if they exist, some data from Voyagers suggested hydrocarbons.

Then the instrument package, with severe weight and mass limits, plus all of the above problems, you might land OK but would any science return be possible with so many unknowns?
We know what happened in the end of course, Huygens made it, returned data and those eerie images, an add on to a far bigger, much wider ranging mission, still a relief after losing Beagle 2.
There's a full scale mock up of Huygens in the Science Museum in London, small as it is, fascinating to think the real one made the farthest landfall of any man made object to date, something that will remain for at least decades to come.

But Cassini's mission has if anything, put other Moons of Saturn nearer the top of the table for potential life forms, over Titan, though Saturn's biggest Moon is still there.
Enceladus is screaming for at least an orbiter better yet closely followed, if possible, by a lander, small scale spacecraft though.

Cassini is the last of it's kind, in size with associated cost - though the science return from such a long term and robust mission is the payback, advances in technology have driven down size, Cassini after all was conceived over 30 years ago, was launched nearly 20 years ago, when an i-phone would have seemed unlikely to be around a decade hence, when they started building Cassini mobile phones were more like bricks.

A good call by NASA/JPL to end the mission by combing a suitably spectacular end, good science right up to the last and making sure that Cassini could not one day compromise the search for life on those moons.
It will be interesting to see how the old bird does in the ring gap dives to come, useful data in any case, then of course the ultimate close up of the planet itself.
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Re: Saying goodbye to Cassini and the Saturn system

Thu May 18, 2017 5:20 am

That's part of what's so amazing about this - Cassini really is very old tech by modern standards. The control computer is broadly comparable to an Intel 80286 (286) or so - a 16-bit processor with more advanced instructions than the 286, but capable of addressing less memory - a little over 2MB of RAM at a maximum with an add-on, or 128KB without! I crushed a microSD card smaller than a dime with 32,000 times the capacity between my fingers last week after it started failing and I couldn't overwrite my data. (And yes, I was pretty tripped out by doing so.)

We're certain to see missions to Enceladus, and of course there is a huge focus on Europa. I'm not sure where Titan will fit in given that detection of life "as we know it," if it exists on Titan, is likely not feasible with current technology and understanding. And it's quite clear that between Mars, Europa, and now Enceladus, the focus at NASA is on the search for life as we know it. That said, a Titan-specific mission would be a huge boon to planetary sciences and the understanding of how solar systems form. It is the only other world besides ours with a thick atmosphere and liquids on the surface. That alone makes it well worth the expense and effort, even though it is otherwise so very different.

To be honest, I really wish somebody would send at least a little orbiter to Uranus. It's so tantalizingly mysterious. But, it's not really on anybody's extended timeline or wish list at all, it seems. It is a strange planet though, and given its unusual orientation I'm sure we'd find quite a few mysteries to explore if we only looked.
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Re: Saying goodbye to Cassini and the Saturn system

Thu May 18, 2017 7:39 am

treetreeseven wrote:
That's part of what's so amazing about this - Cassini really is very old tech by modern standards.

you only need the processing oompf for gaming and "windows waiting for user input faster".

Experiments on Cassini-Huygens were one of the first big ones to use AntiFuse FPGA based hardware. Quite the step forward to
provide more functionality on the hardware side. ( Same for Rosetta, slightly later in time. the MIRO preprocessor doing 2x8Bit @200MS into a
cyclic accumulator would not have been possible without.)
Murphy is an optimist

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