By Karen Morfitt
BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) – For two decades, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been sending historical information about Saturn back to Earth and using Colorado-built instruments to help do it. The grand finale is Friday morning.
The spacecraft will run out of fuel, causing its intentional dive into Saturn’s atmosphere at a speed of 70,000 mph — even in its final moments sending back new information.
“They use the phrase rewrite the textbooks. Cassini has truly rewritten the textbooks,” planetary scientist Nick Schneider said.
Schneider would know, because he literally wrote the book on space — or at least one of them.
“Every time a Cassini discovery comes out, I open up the old edition and I say, ‘Well, we’re going to have to change this. We’re going to have to change that,'” he said.
During its time in orbit, Cassini has collected enormous amounts of data about our solar system, specifically the planet Saturn. Its two major discoveries include the moon Titan’s methane lakes and a global ocean on the moon Enceladus — which NASA says has become a promising lead in the search for worlds where life could exist.
“Here’s a place that’s got liquid water, it’s got chemicals and it’s got an energy source — maybe volcanoes — and a lot of people think that’s what you need for life,” Schneider said.
One of the key tools used to make those discoveries is Boulder born.
“NASA goes to the University of Colorado when it wants an ultraviolet instrument. That’s our instrument on Cassini,” Schneider said.
The university’s Larry Esposito was key to the instrument’s success on the spacecraft. After dedicating his life to the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph onboard Cassini, he will be in California watching as it makes its final contact.
“It’s had a spectacular successful run with fantastic results, which changed how the common person is thinking about the planets of our solar system,” Esposito said.
For Schneider, the final dive into Saturn’s atmosphere and the end of Cassini is bittersweet.
“Scientists, you might think that we are cold, calculating people, but we invest our lives in this,” Schneider said.
Esposito says instead of a funeral, he’s looking at the end of the mission more like an Irish wake.
“We are going to celebrate and have a drink of whiskey to remember all of the great achievements of the mission,” he said.
Karen Morfitt joined the CBS4 team as a reporter in 2013. She covers a variety of stories in and around the Denver metro area. Connect with her on Facebook, follow her on Twitter @karenmorfitt or email her tips.