Saturn: Cassini's Final Chapter After years, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will soon begin its final act — a plunge into Saturn. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Dr. Carolyn Porco, head of the imaging team, about the mission's legacy.
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Saturn: Cassini's Final Chapter

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Saturn: Cassini's Final Chapter

Saturn: Cassini's Final Chapter

Saturn: Cassini's Final Chapter

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After years, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will soon begin its final act — a plunge into Saturn. NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to Dr. Carolyn Porco, head of the imaging team, about the mission's legacy.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Cassini's odyssey through the cosmos has entered its final act. The unmanned spacecraft was launched two decades ago to explore Saturn and its moons. But in a few months, its mission will come to a dramatic end with its plunge into the depths of Saturn's atmosphere. Dr. Carolyn Porco joins me now. She is the leader of the Cassini imaging team. Thanks so much for being with us.

CAROLYN PORCO: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Cassini's having a big finish. What's it up to?

PORCO: Well, we decided to go out in grand style. There was still a lot of verve left in the spacecraft and the instruments. And we knew it was time to bring the mission to an end. All good things must end. And so we put it on an orbit that took it and is taking it through unchartered territory. We're very, very close to the cloud tops of Saturn. We're measuring in fine detail the gravitational field of Saturn. We're going to be measuring the rotation rate of the planet. And then, finally, it will be measuring the composition of the Saturn atmosphere. So in some real sense, this is like a new mission. And, like I said, we're going out in grand style.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the legacy of this mission? What have we learned?

PORCO: Oh, my goodness, where do I begin?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Give us synopsis.

PORCO: We have basically come to intimately know this incredibly phenomenologically-rich planetary system, kind of the promised land in our solar system. We have come to intimately know it now. And it has shown us so many things. But the thing that I get most excited about is that we have found on some small moon called enceladus - no bigger across than England - a subsurface ocean that we believe is the most accessible habitable zone in our solar system outside the earth. And so there are some of us who are eager to return to find out if life, in fact, has gotten started on this moon.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've worked on this mission since its inception. And on the Cassini imaging website, you've kept what you call - and I love this as a "Star Trek" fan myself - a captain's log. It's a journal of the mission's progress, but it's not what I think our listeners might expect a scientist logbook to look like. The entries have titles like, I Dreamed Of Falling, A Year Of Splendor, and The Day The Earth Smiled. It seems as if this mission has really been important to you personally.

PORCO: Oh, my goodness, yes. It's been my life for the last 27 years. You know, for people who aren't in our business and don't participate in flight missions like this, it's hard to describe, you know, how committed you have to be. And there were many years - not months, not weeks, but many years when it required clearing the decks of everything, including any semblance of a normal life, to make it happen. But, you know, through all of it, it's - you know, you're doing something so historic and so incredibly privileged. And there is a poetry to it that, of course, that's what you're picking up.

It's - we feel we're living the explorer's life and immersing ourselves in nature's secrets and mysteries. We're the high priests and priestesses who are trying to tease out what it is that nature is telling us about ourselves, about our place in the cosmos. And we're doing this by trying to understand what is around us, what's our cosmic neighborhood. And I don't think there's anything greater to be doing with one's life than that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: After investing so much time in this mission, how do you feel now that Cassini is having its finish?

PORCO: Well, you know, when I just sit and think about it myself, I'm thinking, wow, it's been such a lot of work. I think, you know, it'll be a relief when it's over. I'll go camping. I'll spend the next two years - I don't know - walking along beaches and admiring the scenery. But when, you know, I get on a program like this, and I'm hearing someone else say, oh, it's the end, I'm choking back tears. It's an abrupt juncture, you know?

For 27 years up until when it goes into Saturn, I will have spent my life doing this one thing. And then after that, it's over. And that goes for many, many of us on this project. So it's going to be - in some sense is going to be like a death. You know, it's been a huge part of my life. And then it won't be there anymore. But I think also that - I mean, I know that's a legacy that I'm always going to be enormously proud of. And I think I'll enjoy it when I'm, you know, in my rocking chair, you know, as an old lady just thinking about what I did with my life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Carolyn Porco. She's the head of the Cassini imaging team. Thanks so much for being with us and congratulations.

PORCO: Oh, thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOULU SONG, "THE GAME")

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Cassini Craft Beams Closest Images Ever Taken Of Saturn

Images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show the closest-ever views of Saturn's swirled atmosphere and its massive hurricane. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute hide caption

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft show the closest-ever views of Saturn's swirled atmosphere and its massive hurricane.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is giving earthlings their closest-ever views of Saturn's swirled atmosphere and its massive hurricane, beaming a trove of images and data back to Earth after the craft made its first dive between Saturn and its rings Wednesday.

Cassini is "showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.

The raw images are being fed into a photo stream on NASA's website, and while they lack detailed captions and annotations, they provide entrancing views of the planet's complex atmosphere.

In the maneuver that sent Cassini between Saturn and its rings, the craft went over the planet's north pole, where it captured the first high-resolution image of the mammoth storm back in 2013. The eye of the storm was measured at more than 1,000 miles wide.

As Cassini began to cross between Saturn and its rings, the craft went over the planet's north pole. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute hide caption

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NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As Cassini began to cross between Saturn and its rings, the craft went over the planet's north pole.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The vortex is swirling inside "a large, mysterious, six-sided weather pattern known as the hexagon," NASA has said.

As of Thursday morning, more than 100 images had arrived from Saturn. Some show what look to be ethereal blips and blotches against the planet's swirling clouds. Other images tantalize with patterns of striated clouds and whorls of disturbance.

Cassini captured the images over the past 24 hours, but it couldn't send them back to Earth until early Thursday because the craft was using its 13-foot-wide antenna as a deflector shield to protect it from ice and rock particles. Right on schedule, the craft made contact with NASA's Deep Space Network at the Goldstone Complex in California's Mojave Desert just before 3 a.m. ET Thursday.

An animation of photos showing Saturn's atmosphere taken by NASA's Cassini craft.

"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn's other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like," said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

All went according to the plan, Maize said, adding that after its dive, the craft that has now been in space for nearly 20 years "has come out the other side in excellent shape."

As we reported Wednesday, Cassini has now begun what NASA calls its Grand Finale, as it weaves its way between Saturn and its rings in a series of 22 dives that will culminate in what the agency describes as "a science-rich plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on Sept. 15."