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.
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.
Godspeed Cassini. And may the force be with you.
Until next time….