NASA’s Cassini spacecraft burns up in skies over Saturn

In this March 26, 1997 file photo, a technician checks the heat shield of the space probe Huygens in the cleanroom of Dornier Satellitensysteme GmbH in Ottobrunn, Germany, near Munich. The probe will be carried by NASA's Cassini orbiter and is designed to explore Saturn's moon Titan. (AP Photo/Uwe Lein)
Updated 15 September 2017

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft burns up in skies over Saturn

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft disintegrated in the skies above Saturn early Friday in a final, fateful blaze of cosmic glory, following a remarkable journey of 20 years.
Confirmation of Cassini’s expected demise came about 7:55 a.m. EDT. That’s when radio signals from the spacecraft — its last scientific gifts to Earth — came to an abrupt halt. The radio waves went flat, and the spacecraft fell silent.
Cassini actually burned up like a meteor 83 minutes earlier as it dove through Saturn’s atmosphere, becoming one with the giant gas planet it set out in 1997 to explore. But it took that long for the news to reach Earth a billion miles away.
The only spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn, Cassini showed us the planet, its rings and moons up close in all their splendor. Perhaps most tantalizing, ocean worlds were unveiled on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbor life.
Dutiful to the end, the Cassini snapped its “last memento photos” Thursday and sampled Saturn’s atmosphere Friday morning as it made its final plunge.
Program manager Earl Maize made the official pronouncement:
“This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft and you’re all an incredible team,” Maize said. “I’ll call this the end of mission.”
Flight controllers wearing matching purple shirts stood and embraced and shook hands.
More than 1,500 people, many of them past and present team members, had gathered at California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for what was described as both a vigil and celebration. Even more congregated at nearby California Institute of Technology, which runs the lab for NASA.

NASA’s science mission director, Thomas Zurbuchen, made note of all the tissues inside JPL’s Mission Control, along with the customary lucky peanuts. Team members were clearly emotional, he said.
“These worlds that they found, we never knew were there, are changing how we think about life itself,” he said. “And so for me, that’s why it’s truly a civilization-scale mission, one that will stand out among other missions, anywhere.”
Project scientist Linda Spilker noted Cassini has been running “a marathon of scientific discovery” for 13 years at Saturn.
“So we’re here today to cheer as Cassini finishes that race,” she said.
The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting at more than 76,000 mph (122,000 kph). Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini’s last-gasp flash, but weren’t hopeful it would be spotted against the vast backdrop of the solar system’s second biggest planet.
This Grand Finale, as NASA called it, came about as Cassini’s fuel tank started getting low after 13 years exploring the planet. Scientists wanted to prevent Cassini from crashing into Enceladus or Titan — and contaminating those pristine worlds. And so in April, Cassini was directed into the previously unexplored gap between Saturn’s cloud tops and the rings. Twenty-two times, Cassini entered the gap and came out again. The last time was last week.
The leader of Cassini’s imaging team, Carolyn Porco, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, was so involved with the mission for so long that now, “I consider it the start of life, part two.”
Cassini departed Earth in 1997 and arrived at the sixth planet from our sun in 2004. The hitchhiking European Huygens landed on big moon Titan in 2005. Nothing from Earth has landed farther. Three other spacecraft previously flew past Saturn, but Cassini was the only one to actually circle the planet.
In all, Cassini collected more than 453,000 images and traveled 4.9 billion miles. It was an international endeavor, with 27 nations taking part. The final price tag was $3.9 billion.
European space officials joined their US colleagues to bid Cassini farewell.
“It’s a very historical moment,” said the Italian Space Agency’s president, Roberto Battiston.
There were lighthearted touches as well. During its broadcast NASA played a video clip of the Cassini Virtual Singers, spacecraft team members who belted out, “Tonight, tonight, we take the plunge tonight ...” to the music from “West Side Story.”
Scientists are already eager to go back and delve into the wet, wild worlds of Enceladus and Titan. Proposals are under consideration by NASA, but there’s nothing official yet. In the meantime, NASA plans sometime in the 2020s to send an orbiter and lander to Europa, a moon of Jupiter believed to have a global ocean that might be compatible for life.
“Yes, we really want to go back” to Saturn, Zurbuchen said. “It’s such a wonderful system, we don’t want to leave it alone.”


Alexei Leonov, 1st human to walk in space, dies in Moscow

In this Tuesday, July 20, 2010 file photo, former Russian cosmonaut Alexei Leonov speaks to the media before a reception at the U.S. Ambassador's Spaso House residence in Moscow, Russia. (AP)
Updated 12 October 2019

Alexei Leonov, 1st human to walk in space, dies in Moscow

  • NASA on Friday offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death

MOSCOW: Alexei Leonov, the legendary Soviet cosmonaut who became the first human to walk in space 54 years ago — and who nearly didn’t make it back into his space capsule — has died in Moscow at 85.
The Russian space agency Roscosmos made the announcement on its website Friday but gave no cause for his death. Leonov had health issues for several years, according to Russia media.
Showing just how much of a space pioneer Leonov was, NASA broke into its live televised coverage of a spacewalk by two Americans outside the International Space Station to report Leonov’s death.
“A tribute to Leonov as today is a spacewalk,” Mission Control in Houston said.
Leonov — described by the Russian Space Agency as Cosmonaut No. 11 — was an icon both in his country as well as in the US He was such a legend that the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke named a Soviet spaceship after him in his “2010” sequel to “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday sent his condolences to Leonov’s family, calling him a “true pioneer, a strong and heroic person.”
“Infinitely committed to his vocation, he left a truly legendary mark in the history of space exploration and in the history of our country,” Putin said on the Kremlin’s website.
Leonov was born in 1934 into a large peasant family in western Siberia. Like countless Soviet peasants, his father was arrested and shipped off to Gulag prison camps under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but he managed to survive and reunite with his family.
The future cosmonaut had a strong artistic bent and even thought about going to art school before he enrolled in a pilot training course and, later, an aviation college. Leonov did not give up sketching even when he flew into space, and took colored pencils with him on the Apollo-Soyuz flight in 1975 to draw.
That mission was the first one between the Soviet Union and the United States and was carried out at the height of the Cold War. Apollo-Soyuz 19 was a prelude to the international cooperation seen aboard the current International Space Station.
But Leonov staked his place in space history ten years earlier, on March 18, 1965, when he exited his Voskhod 2 space capsule secured by a tether.
“I stepped into that void and I didn’t fall in,” the cosmonaut recalled years later. “I was mesmerized by the stars. They were everywhere — up above, down below, to the left, to the right. I can still hear my breath and my heartbeat in that silence.”
Spacewalking always carries a high risk but Leonov’s pioneering venture was particularly nerve-wracking, according to details of the exploit that only became public decades later.
His spacesuit had inflated so much in the vacuum of space that he could not get back into the spacecraft. He had to open a valve to vent oxygen from his suit to be able to fit through the hatch.
Leonov’s 12-minute spacewalk preceded the first US spacewalk, by Ed White, by less than three months.
Leonov might have become the Soviet Union’s first moonwalker, in fact, had his country’s lunar-landing effort not been canceled in the wake of Apollo 11’s triumphant moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on July 20, 1969.
On his second trip into space ten years later, Leonov commanded the Soviet half of Apollo-Soyuz 19.
The cosmonaut was well known for his humor. Once the US Apollo and Soviet Soyuz capsules docked in orbit around Earth on July, 17, 1975, Leonov and his Russian crewmate, Valeri Kubasov, welcomed the three US astronauts — their Cold War rivals — with canned borscht disguised as Stolichnaya vodka and suggested a toast.
“When we sat at the table, they said: ‘Why, that’s not possible,’” Leonov recalled in 2005. “We insisted, saying that according to our tradition, we must drink before work. That worked, they opened it and drank (the borscht) and were caught by surprise.”
The cosmonaut turned 85 in May. Several days before that, two Russian crewmembers on the International Space Station ventured into open space on a planned spacewalk, carrying Leonov’s picture with them to pay tribute to the space legend. They said “Happy Birthday!” to Leonov before opening the hatch and venturing out.
Leonov’s modern-day successor, Oleg Kononenko, who was one of the two Russians on that spacewalk, told Rossiya-24 television on Friday that Leonov had tuned in to hear their congratulations from space.
“We were going to stop by Alexei Arkhipovich (Leonov) after our return and give him our space souvenirs, but you see it wasn’t meant to be,” Kononenko said.
When his crew returned to earth at the end of June, Leonov was already unwell.
Kononenko spoke fondly of the Soviet space pioneer, saying he was a frequent guest at send-off ceremonies for space crews in Star City and at the cosmodrome in Baikonur, Kazakhstan.
“We had this tradition that he would give cosmonauts pep talks before they board the spacecraft,” Kononenko said. “We all looked forward to that, always thought about it and always wanted Leonov to be the one to send us off into space.”
Messages of condolences poured from around the globe.
NASA on Friday offered its sympathies to Leonov’s family, saying it was saddened by his death.
“His venture into the vacuum of space began the history of extra-vehicular activity that makes today’s Space Station maintenance possible,” NASA said on Twitter.
“One of the finest people I have ever known,” former Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield tweeted on Friday. “Alexei Arkhipovich Leonov, artist, leader, spacewalker and friend, I salute you.”
Russian space fans were bringing flowers to his monument Friday on the memorial alley in honor of Russia’s cosmonauts in Moscow.
Leonov, who will be buried on Tuesday at a military memorial cemetery outside Moscow, is survived by his wife, a daughter and two grandchildren.