Deep Space Network Team Bids Farewell to Cassini

The Cassini space probe provided valuable insights into Saturn and its rings from 2004 until it disappeared into Saturn’s atmosphere in September 2017, and it transmitted those insights to Earth via the Deep Space Network (DSN). Peraton provides operations, maintenance, mission planning, and engineering services for the DSN.

If a spacecraft could ever be compared to a member of the family, it was Cassini, launched in 1997 on a seven-year journey to reach Saturn. Its mission: to orbit the ringed planet studying the Saturnian system in detail. Cassini also carried a probe called Huygens, which parachuted to the surface of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in January 2005, returning spectacular data and images.

Cassini spent 13 years in orbit, circling Saturn 293 times and making 162 flybys of Saturn’s moons, including 127 of Titan and 23 of Enceladus. In 2016, the spacecraft began to run low on fuel, which was needed adjust its course. If left unattended, mission operators eventually would have been unable to control the course of the spacecraft, threatening a possible collision into Enceladus or Titan. To prevent a crash into one of these pristine moons, NASA chose to safely send the spacecraft into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it would burn up on entry and  not contaminate future studies of habitability and potential life on those moons. On September 15th, Cassini made its last orbit around Saturn.

As the mission was ending, the DSN was tasked with doing everything possible (within a 17-hour critical-event period) to ensure that each bit of valuable scientific data was collected as long as the on-board science instruments continued to function and make measurements. Tracking began over Goldstone, California, and ended over Canberra, Australia.

DSN’s end-of-mission tracking support for NASA and JPL was flawless. In those final moments, the DSN antennas captured the closest images of Saturn’s rings and clouds ever, providing humankind with science data that was new and unexpected. As it dove through Saturn’s innermost ring and entered the atmosphere, Cassini burned up like a meteor, becoming part of the planet itself and marking the end of an era and a successful mission.