Reliving Cassini's Final Moments: Engineers Recreate Spacecraft's Fatal Plunge Into Saturn's Atmosphere

The final full view of Saturn from Cassini, on Sept. 13, 2017. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major

It has been just over a month now since the Cassini spacecraft took its final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, ending an incredible mission of 13 years at the ringed giant planet. The probe continued collecting scientific data until the very last moments, and now engineers have been able to reconstruct what happened to it as it met its fate.

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A Billion Miles to Saturn: 20 Years Since the Launch of Cassini

The second Titan IVB roars aloft on 15 October 1997, carrying the Cassini mission to Saturn. Photo Credit: NASA

In the pre-dawn darkness of 15 October 1997, exactly two decades ago, this very day, one of the largest and most powerful rockets ever brought to operational service was poised for launch on Space Launch Complex (SLC)-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. Standing some 183 feet (55.9 meters) tall, the Titan IV had flown on 20 occasions in the previous eight years, completing all but one of its missions successfully. However, the configuration to be employed on this particular flight—known as the Titan IVB-Centaur, a three-stage beast, with two side-mounted solid-fueled boosters—had only launched once before, to deliver a military satellite into orbit in February 1997. Many minds, of course, were on the Titan IV’s single operational failure, for on 15 October 1997 the Titan IV faced perhaps the most important mission of its career: the launch of the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft on a 1.4-billion-mile (2.2-billion-kilometer) journey to explore Saturn.

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5th Time the Charm, Watch ULA Launch NROL-52 from our Remote Cameras

LIFTOFF of the NROL-52 classified payload atop a ULA Atlas-V from SLC-41 on Cape Canaveral AFS Oct 15, 2017. Credits: AmericaSpace / Mike Killian

It took five tries, scrubbed x3 for bad weather and once for a technical issue, but ULA finally got the classified NROL-52 payload off the ground and into space, launching atop an Atlas-V rocket from SLC-41 on Cape Canaveral AFS, FL at 3:28 a.m. EDT.

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VIDEO: Pad Cameras Capture Stunning Sunset SES-11 Launch off 39A

The launch of SES-11 / Echotar 105 from KSC pad 39A. Credit: Jeff Seibert / AmericaSpace

One thing about AmericaSpace, which isn’t true of most other space news outlets, we actually have photojournalists staffed to produce our own imagery, and yesterday was no different, as SpaceX pulled off another successful launch, and landing on Oct 11, sending the SES-11 / EchoStar 105 into orbit at sunset from Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39A atop a Falcon 9 rocket.

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Three Spacefarers from Three Nations Prepare for Four-Month Mission to Space Station

Soyuz MS-07 crew consists of Commander Anton Shkaplerov (center), with Scott Tingle (right) as Flight Engineer-1 and Norishige Kanai (left) as Flight Engineer-2. Photo Credit: NASA/Twitter

Three spacefarers from the United States, Russia and Japan gathered at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, yesterday (Wednesday, 11 October), to discuss their upcoming voyage to the International Space Station (ISS). First-time NASA astronaut Scott Tingle was joined by fellow “rookie” Norishige Kanai of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and veteran Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov. The trio will launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan aboard Soyuz MS-07 on 17 December, kicking off a four-month mission. They will initially form the second half of Expedition 54, before rotating into the core of Expedition 55, under Shkaplerov’s command, through their return to Earth in early April 2018.

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SpaceX Launches SES-11 in 15th Mission of 2017

The 15th Upgraded Falcon 9 of 2017 launches SES-11 to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO). Photo Credit: 45th Space Wing/Twitter

Fifteen launches in a single calendar year is a remarkable accolade and earlier tonight (Wednesday, 11 October), SpaceX successfully delivered the heavyweight SES-11 communications satellite to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO), atop its venerable Upgraded Falcon 9 booster. Originally scheduled to fly last Saturday from historic Pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, the mission was postponed a few days and was “leapfrogged” by the third batch of Iridium NEXT satellites, which rode another Upgraded Falcon 9 out of Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., early Monday. Tonight’s flight also marked the third occasion that SpaceX has employed a “used” first-stage core, which returned safely to Earth and made a pinpoint touchdown on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Of Course I Still Love You”, offshore in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Record-Setting Marine Corps Spacewalker Leads Ambitious EVA-45 at Space Station

Randy Bresnik (with red stripes) and Mark Vande Hei totaled six hours and 26 minutes during Tuesday’s U.S. EVA-45. Photo Credit: NASA/Sergei Ryazansky/Twitter

The U.S. Marine Corps is celebrating a new service record today, after Expedition 53 Commander Randy “Komrade” Bresnik—a retired colonel—became the service’s most seasoned spacewalker. Having already become the first Marine to embark on a long-duration voyage to the International Space Station (ISS), when he launched aboard Soyuz MS-05 in July, and the first Marine to command the multi-national orbiting laboratory in September, he chalked up his fourth career spacewalk today (Tuesday, 10 October) and totaled 25 hours and 11 minutes. In doing so, Bresnik eclipses the previous record-holder, fellow Marine Carlos Noriega, who performed three sessions of Extravehicular Activity (EVA), totaling 19 hours and 20 minutes, during the STS-97 shuttle flight in late 2000.

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SpaceX Launches Third Batch of Iridium NEXT Satellites from Vandenberg, Returns First Stage to Drone Ship

Following today’s launch, 40 percent of the Iridium NEXT constellation are now safely in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). Photo Credit: Iridium/SpaceX/Twitter

After a year of records and “personal bests”, SpaceX aims to launch a pair of Upgraded Falcon 9 boosters within two days of each other this week, delivering a ten-strong batch of Iridium NEXT communications satellites to Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) on Monday, 9 October, followed by the heavyweight SES-11 payload to Geostationary Transfer Orbit (GTO) on Wednesday, 11 October. Already, 2017 has seen the long-awaited inauguration of Pad 39A for SpaceX operations, as well as its first classified payload on behalf of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), its first reused Upgraded Falcon 9 first stage and its first reused Dragon cargo vehicle.

Monday’s Iridium NEXT launch occurred during an “instantaneous” window, which opened at 5:37 a.m. PDT (8:37 a.m. EDT) from Space Launch Complex (SLC)-4E at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and represented SpaceX’s 14th mission of the year. It also brings to more than 40 the total number of major payloads launched into orbit by SpaceX in 2017. Less than eight minutes later, the Upgraded Falcon 9’s returning first stage alighted smoothly on the Autonomous Spaceport Drone Ship (ASDS), “Just Read the Instructions”, situated a couple hundred miles off the California coastline.

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Complexity and Challenge: Dawn Project Manager Speaks of Difficult Voyage to Vesta and Ceres

This artist’s concept shows NASA’s Dawn spacecraft heading toward the dwarf planet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A decade of operations in deep space is no longer a unique understanding, as we have seen in recent weeks, as Cassini ended 13 years of spectacular science at Saturn and the international Dawn mission celebrated ten years exploring the asteroid belt—which lies between Mars and Jupiter—and became the first emissary from Earth to enter orbit around two dwarf planets, Vesta and Ceres. Running such complex spacecraft for long periods of time, with all instruments fully operational, is notoriously difficult. Added to the mix is the complexity of co-ordinating between several nations and tackling technical obstacles far from home. Joe Makowski, Orbital ATK’s Phase E Project Manager for Dawn, recently outlined for AmericaSpace the challenges and the triumphs of this remarkable mission.

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'Cradle of Life' on Mars? Scientists Discover Evidence for Hydrothermal Deposits in Ancient Sea

Part of the Eridania basin, where ancient hydrothermal deposits have been surrounded by younger volcanic deposits in what was once a sea. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Does Mars, or did it ever, have life? We still don’t know the answer to that question, but scientists have found new evidence that at least one region had ancient sea-floor hydrothermal activity, a discovery that increases the chances that microbial life may have once existed, and could also provide clues as to how life started on Earth.

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