The most dangerous days yet have started for the Cassini-Huygens American-European space probe that was launched from Earth to study ringed Saturn, the sixth major planet from the Sun, almost 20 years ago.
Cassini landed its probe ‘Huygens’ on the surface of Saturn’s largest moon Titan back in 2005 and went on to make close approaches to its families of smaller and in some cases micro-small moons.
But now it is running low on the fuel needed to alter its orbits around Saturn and orientate its suite of instruments, and the grand finale before an intended plunge into the upper atmosphere of gas giant Saturn this September has started.
This is a series of orbits between the innermost known rings of Saturn and the start of the denser atmosphere above the cloud tops of the planet. The imminent risk to Cassini completing those final orbits is that it may collide with some of the small fragments of frozen dusts and ices that might exist between the visible inside ring edge and the planet each time it crosses the plane of the intricate ring system above Saturn’s equatorial zone.
On April 12, as Cassini used the gravitation field of Titan to initiate its grand finale, its cameras were turned toward Earth, where its epic voyage began in 1997, and captured the home planet and its moon between the rings. Since Cassini-Huygens was launched many of those in the original teams that designed it in the US and Europe would have died or retired.
Follow up missions could involve unborn generations. They may even contain the downloaded intelligence, decision making and information processing skills of future space scientists in their payloads, rendering direct human involvement in such deep space exploration immune to the medical risks of prolonged loss of gravity or radiation storms.
Space may be the place where humans and machines finally come together, a topic for the nearer future that could prove more remarkable in its perspectives than those glimpses of Earth between the gigantic geometry of Saturn’s rings.
Our Moon is much dimmer than brighter and larger Earth, so it is but a speck of light which might be better seen to its left by visiting NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day web site. The featured content for this site’s URL is overwritten each day, so if the photo shown below isn’t there, check out its archive.