Good Bye Cassini. Hello Saturn Meteorites

Back in 2004 I wrote a column for The Meteorite Times about my journey with Saturn and Cassini. By the time you read this the Cassini spacecraft will have said goodbye to us on earth and plunged into Saturn’s icy atmosphere, all 22 feet and 12,500 pounds of her (well, actually only 4,685 pounds since she lost some weight during her 20 year mission). And as the telemetry flatlines and the cold atmospheric sheet pulled over her cameras, Cassini will forever be remembered as one of the greatest robotic space missions…ever.

In the cleanroom at JPL with the Cassini mockup spacecraft. A much younger me on the right.

The $3.9 billion mission took 635 gigabytes of science data during its 294 Saturn orbits and 162 moon flybys. But what does all this have to do with meteorites, you ask? It turns out that Cassini photographed meteors flying into Saturn’s rings making Saturn one of the very few places in the solar system where such a phenomenon has been witnessed.

 

The photo below shows some of the images captured between 2009 and 2012 that “show clouds of material ejected from impacts of small objects into the rings.” Can you find the collisions? Follow this link to an annotated version of these images.

So as Cassini goes to sleep under the blankets of Saturn, I bid it a fond farewell, and a gracious thank you. For without Cassini, the chapter on Saturn in astronomy books today would likely still look like the one I read back in the 1980s. A chapter based on science gleaned from a spacecraft launched the 1970s.

A photo of Saturn taken by the Voyager spacecraft in 1980.

 

Godspeed Cassini. And may the force be with you.

Until next time….

About the Author

Dr. Martin Horejsi is a Professor of Instructional Technology and Science Education at The University of Montana. A long-time meteorite collector and writer, before publishing his column The Accretion Desk in The Meteorite Times, he contributed often and wrote the column From The Strewnfields in Meteorite Magazine. Horejsi is currently a monthly columnist in The Science Teacher, a journal by the National Science Teachers Association.Horejsi specializes in the collection and study of historic witnessed fall meteorites with the older, smaller, and rarer the better. Although his meteorite collection once numbered over a thousand pieces with near that many different locations, several large trades and sales have streamlined the collection to about 250 locations with all but 10 being important witnessed falls.Many of the significant specimens in Horejsi's collection are historic witnessed falls that once occupied prominence in the meteorite collections of Robert A. Haag, James Schwade, and Michael Farmer. Other important specimens were acquired through institutional trades including those from The Smithsonian Institution, Arizona State University, and other universities.
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