Cassini’s ‘Grand Finale’ just the beginning of NASA’s renaissance

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For the first time, a human-built spacecraft has sailed into the region between Saturn and the gas giant’s rings.

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, launched almost 20 years ago, has orbited Saturn since 2004, but its final voyage is at hand.

Basically out of fuel, the craft is expected to orbit the planet until crashes down this fall — assuming it survives today’s epic milestone.

Why aim for the planet? If left to drift, NASA says, a dead Cassini could endanger environments on the moons of Titan or Enceladus, which have been deemed potential habitats for primitive life forms.

Google, being Google, today commemorated the occasion with one of its famous Doodles, somehow capturing a range of emotions in a brief animated GIF:

Saturn and Cassini Google Doodle

‘Grand Finale’ and beyond

Earlier this month, during my trip to Orlando for Star Wars Celebration, I had the chance to visit NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where Cassini began its mission in 1997.

In the still from the short film Cassini's Grand Finale, the spacecraft is shown diving between Saturn and the planet's innermost ring. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)
In the still from the short film Cassini’s Grand Finale, the spacecraft is shown diving between Saturn and the planet’s innermost ring. (Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Aside from being a top-tier tourist destination even so close to the Disney-Universal-Sea World complexes, I was struck by how Kennedy Space Center is buzzing with excitement for what the future holds in terms of both manned and unmanned space exploration and experimentation. (If you ever go, be sure to make time for the bus tour around the facility outside the visitors center, as well as the new Heroes and Legends exhibit/attraction.)

Much of the out-of-this-world innovation making headlines today may be in private business hands, and it may take international help to get our astronauts to orbit for the moment, but the old launchpads and control centers are still here, in demand more than ever and ready for the renaissance in American rocket science and leadership in space — and with even manned missions coming home, that new era is beginning even as Cassini’s productive life comes to a spectacular end.

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