Friday's HOT MIC

Friday's HOT MIC

The Cassini spacecraft, one of the most successful missions in NASA history, ended today as its orbit decayed to the point that it plunged into Saturn at 70,000 MPH. But even as it was in its death throes, Cassini kept transmitting photos and data until the last possible second.


The probe explored space for nearly 20 years. It reshaped our view of Saturn and discovered tantalizing water geysers on the moon Enceladus and methane seas on fellow Saturn moon Titan, changing ideas about where life might be able to grab a toehold in our solar system. Along the way, the spacecraft made countless other discoveries about the planet's rings, moons and atmosphere.

And then there are the photos. Spectacular, jaw-dropping views of Saturn's weird hexagon and strange moons Mimas (the Death Star, anyone?); Iapetus (is that a walnut or moon?); and Pan, which sure does look like a tasty ravioli.

The probe beamed its final photos of Saturn to Earth on Thursday. There won't be more like them until we decide to go back.

Cassini truly was a flagship mission. Powered by plutonium (which led to some protests when the probe launched in 1997), the $3.9 billion spacecraft slingshotted around Venus twice and Earth once before traveling on to Jupiter to accelerate enough to reach Saturn in 2004. The spacecraft traveled 4.9 billion miles (7.9 billion kilometers) during its mission, circled Saturn 293 times, discovered six moons and observed dozens more. It dropped the European Space Agency's Huygens probe on Titan, the first-ever landing in the outer solar system.

And even faced with imminent death, Cassini persevered. With scorching-hot temperatures searing its instruments, the hardy probe held on during the dive into Saturn. Spacecraft operations chief Julie Webster has proof. She told reporters today that Cassini's interior was a comfortable room temperature until the probe's signal went silent. And that signal itself lasted a full 30 seconds longer than anyone expected.

So, while facing the end, Cassini went out in a literal blaze of glory. And even after its science has fueled thousands of research studies, the mission's legacy will live on as more discoveries are sifted from the 635 gigabytes of data the probe collected.

Well done, Cassini.