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Lost in Space - A Part of Cassini is Still Out There

November 22, 2017; Srama, Ralf

On September 15, 2017, the incredible journey of the Cassini mission to Saturn came to an end. The spacecraft vanished into the planet at a speed of 120.000 km/h, like a shooting star streaking across Saturn’s sky. In the end, Cassini became part of the planet itself.

Now the science team of the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) led by Ralf Srama of the University of Stuttgart, has pointed out that one part of Cassini was able to survive the fantastic twenty-year-long journey. Almost forgotten by humankind over time, one metallic piece survived and is now travelling through space. In 1997, during the spacecraft's early cruise phase, when Cassini was still in the vicinity of the Earth, the aluminum cover of the CDA was jettisoned in order to open the instrument's aperture. This early cover release was necessary in order to start with measurements of the interplanetary and interstellar dust background.

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Image: Cover in space

  

Slowly tumbling through space, the cover with a mass of two mobile phones travels on an Earth-like orbit and with an approximate speed of 30 km/s. Models show that the trajectory sometimes brings the cover close to both Venus and Earth. In 2007, the cover came as close as 4 million kilometers to Earth, which corresponds to roughly 10 times the distance between Earth and the Moon. Although not confirmed, due to its highly reflective surface, the cover might, in principle, be observable from Earth by larger telescopes. Researchers investigated whether the cover might collide with Earth and burn up in our atmosphere as a meteor and were able to rule out this possibility for at least the next 50 years.

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Image: Cassini's trajectory

   

Link to YouTube video of cover trajectory:      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pbuu09F1ZbY

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) was developed by the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics (Heidelberg) and the German Space Agency (DLR, Berlin). It is operated by the Institute for Space Systems (IRS) at the University of Stuttgart (Principal Investigator R. Srama). The project is supported by the German Space Administration DLR.
 
The official Cassini web page:   https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov
Cassini at NASA:   http://www.nasa.gov/cassini