Saying Goodbye to Cassini

  • By Ari Daniel
  • Posted 09.15.17
  • NOVA

A brave explorer, dispatched to study a distant ringed world, has died. This is how Cassini's last moments unfolded.

Running Time: 02:31


Onscreen: Today a great explorer died. For 13 years, the Cassini spacecraft revealed Saturn—its rings, its moons, its beauty. Here's how Cassini spent its final moments. The spacecraft laps the moon of Titan one last time. Titan's gravity redirects Cassini, putting it on a collision course with Saturn.

Earl Maize: It's just been an amazing machine. We've used every bit of it. It's time to say goodbye.

Onscreen: Cassini pirouettes to face Earth to maintain communication as long as possible.

Julie Webster: It's pointing at Earth and downlinking all the data that's on the recorder.

Onscreen: The end is nigh. Cassini has never been this close to Saturn before. Each morsel of data is a treasure.

Linda Spilker: Cassini will be taking data until the very last second. We'll be measuring as deeply into Saturn's atmosphere as we can.

Onscreen: Cassini is flying at ~77,000 mph when it hits Saturn's upper atmosphere. The spacecraft fights to maintain contact with Earth, cranking its thrusters to full power within a minute. But Saturn's increasingly dense atmosphere resists.

Webster: Cassini won't know that it's in trouble. It'll just continue to fight. It can't recover.

Onscreen: ~900 miles above the clouds of Saturn, Cassini begins to tumble. Its connection with Earth is severed. Forever.

Webster: It won't even get a chance to go into safe mode. It'll get very, very hot in a hurry.

Onscreen: The insulation blankets burn up and disintegrate. The antennae break apart. The atmosphere around the spacecraft grows hotter than the surface of the Sun. Cassini vaporizes in a shower of light, its atoms cast into the planet below. And back here on Earth, as Cassini winks out, a community that's coaxed a spacecraft around a ringed world for 13 years holds its breath in silence, in reverence.

Maize: This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're all an incredible team. I'm going to call this end of mission. Project manager, off the net.

Onscreen: Good bye, Cassini. And thank you.



Digital Producer
Ari Daniel
Editorial Review
Julia Cort
Special Thanks
Theresa Machemer
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2017


Writer, Director, and Producer
Terri Randall
Jedd Ehrmann
Sound Recordists
Tim Kitz
Lauretta Molitor
David Arabia
Daniel Traub
Vincente Franco
Jason Longo


NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


(main image: Cassini near Saturn)
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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