Australian scientists listen for ‘last breath of data’ as Cassini spacecraft hurtles towards Saturn


One of the world's most ambitious space missions will come to an end at around 10pm (AEST) tonight, when NASA's 'Cassini' plunges into the ringed planet.

The spacecraft’s final radio communications will be sent to the CSIRO’s Deep Space centre, located outside Canberra. 

The facility is one of only three in the world capable of communicating with Cassini, and on Friday night, Saturn will be visible in the Australian sky.

“We’re going to be with her until her last breath of data tonight as it plunges into the atmosphere of the ringed world Saturn,” Glen Nagle, the lead for the CSIRO's Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC), told SBS World News.

Cassini’s final descent to Saturn is also a final window of opportunity for scientists. The Australian team will be monitoring the last signals for information about the planet’s atmosphere, fed from complex UV, infrared and particle monitoring equipment on-board.

Infrared images of Saturn taken by Cassini
Infrared image of Saturn taken by Cassini (NASA)

The mission began with a launch in Florida in 1997.

Armed with a one-megapixel camera, then considered state-of-the-art, the Cassini spacecraft began its seven year voyage to Saturn.

It has now been in space for 20 years and has orbited the Saturn 293 times, capturing more than 450,000 images.

But now, Cassini is running out of fuel.

NASA and its international partners decided the best option was to deliberately send the spacecraft hurtling into the planet, rather than risking a collision with one of Saturn’s moons.

“Cassini's finale tonight will certainly be a bittersweet moment, but I don’t think of it like the death of a friend,” Mr Nagle said.

“It's more like the ending of your favourite TV show that you've been watching for 20 years … but the great news is, we'll be able to binge-watch its data for the next 20 or 30 years.”

Cassini has been described as one of the most scientifically rich space missions in history.

It successfully landed a smaller probe, named Huygens, on the moon Titan. It mapped huge storms on the surface of Saturn, and offered new insights on the nature of Saturn’s iconic rings.

Image of Saturn taken by Cassini
Image of Saturn taken by Cassini (NASA)

“Probably its greatest discovery has been that two moons, Titan and Enceladus, have liquid oceans, the environment and the organic chemistry that could potentially support life,” Mr Nagle said.

Carolyn Porco, who led Cassini’s Imaging Team, said the moons were an exciting discovery.

“It doesnt get any better than this,” she told American broadcaster PBS. “To go to Saturn and come away having discovered what we think might be the best place in the solar system to go to search for life.”

NASA is publishing the final images as Cassini descends on a special website

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