Cassini’s Grand Finale reveals Saturn’s mysteries

The Cassini spacecraft explored our solar system for 20 years. During this time, the spacecraft took nearly half a million photos. Its mission? To further humanity’s understanding of the Saturn system.

Cassini was a mission of firsts. It was the first landing humanity ever accomplished on a moon other than our own. It was the first time a craft explored the treacherous zone between Saturn and its rings.

In fact, it was Cassini’s famed Grand Finale that led to groundbreaking discoveries about the planet. Cassini’s photos challenged preconceived notions scientists had about Saturn. Although it will take many years to study Cassini’s data, one thing’s for sure: Cassini’s ultra-close orbits to Saturn rewrote the planet’s history.

The Cassini mission

The Cassini spacecraft was a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. The probe launched in 1997 and entered Saturn’s orbit in 2004. Cassini spent 13 years orbiting Saturn to study its system, which includes the planet and its moons.

The goal of the Cassini mission was to study the rings of Saturn and its moons. During the mission, Cassini landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Although it was the fourth probe to visit Saturn, it was the first to actually enter the planet’s orbit.

The Cassini mission officially ended in 2017. Scientists steered the probe into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up, predicting low fuel would stop the craft’s exploration soon. However, before destroying the probe, scientists sent Cassini on one final, wild ride.

Cassini’s Grand Finale

Because Cassini was going to be destroyed anyway, scientists decided to take a risk. They wanted Cassini to explore the risky area between Saturn and its rings. And did Cassini go out with a bang? The craft completed 22 orbits around Saturn before burning up in its atmosphere. Cassini flew where it was never designed to fly, collecting rich data points before ending its mission.

Cassini flew through the 2,000-kilometer gap between the planet and its rings. Although the data was transmitted in 2017, scientists will spend years studying its significance. Here are the latest findings from the Cassini Grand Finale, with more surely to follow.

Organic compounds

Cassini found evidence of many organic compounds in Saturn’s rings. They contained water, silicates, methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, and more.

The significance was that the compounds in Saturn’s rings differed from those on its moons. That means there are three distinct reservoirs of organic molecules in Saturn’s system.

Saturn interacts with its rings

Saturn and its rings are highly connected. Cassini found that particles from Saturn’s rings fall directly into the planet’s atmosphere. In fact, particles are falling from the rings more quickly than we thought. Cassini scientists estimate that 22,000 pounds of material fall out of the rings every second.

Saturn has an unusual magnetic field

Saturn’s magnetic field is highly unusual. Other planets with a magnetic field have a field that is not aligned with their axis.

Saturn, on the other hand, has a magnetic field aligned almost perfectly with its access. According to our understanding of magnetic fields, this shouldn’t be possible. Scientists will continue to study Saturn’s magnetic field to see how it’s generated. Scientists also found that an electric current is what connects Saturn to its rings. We’re still unsure of how this happens, so more research is needed.

The future of Saturn

Cassini’s Grand Finale was worth the added risk. Scientists have been able to study the mysterious region between Saturn and its rings like never before. The Grand Finale gives humanity a chance to uncover more answers and ask bigger questions. The Cassini mission paid off with extremely rich data, thanks to a little risk-taking. It will take years to analyze all of the data, but the future of Saturn is very bright.