Mission accomplished: Cassini scientist on Saturn exploration

Sep 15, 2017

NASA has scuttled a spacecraft circling the planet Saturn and its moons for the past 13 years. The Cassini mission ended around 4 a.m. Friday when the spacecraft purposely steered into Saturn’s atmosphere and disintegrated in a fiery blaze. A scientist working on the Cassini mission is giving a free public talk this weekend at Cal Poly on the mission and the marvels it revealed.

Dr. Jani Radebaugh is a planetary scientist and professor of geological sciences at Utah’s Brigham Young University. She’s on her way to San Luis Obispo to talk about the her specialty on the mission, which was to analyze photographs sent back from Cassini and compare geological features to those on earth.

KCBX News spoke to Radebaugh yesterday from Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Cassini’s mission control. She was there to witness the end of the spacecraft and mission that has produced such valuable data. Radebaugh says she has learned a lot this week about the history of Cassini.

“This mission started more than 30 years ago. We looked at the first project science group meeting, which was a room filled with suits, and mostly men and big hair and glasses; I was saying it looks like a ‘70s cop show,” Radebaugh said. “Really speaks to the origin of this mission and to how long it takes to go to the outer solar system.”

The Cassini probe left planet earth in 1997 and arrived in Saturn’s orbit after a seven-year journey. Ever since, the spacecraft’s instruments has been analyzing the planet’s rings and the moons that orbit around it.

"A big target has been Titan, but there are other satellites there too, like Enceladus which is a really interesting tiny, icy moon that has geysers of water gushing out of the south pole,” Radebaugh said. “Something that we never would have expected, but yet that’s occurring right now on Enceladus." 

After spending 20 years in space, Cassini was running out of fuel and its planned demise approaching. On Saturday at Cal Poly, she will speak about her work on the mission and, in particular, what it was like this past week at mission end. Radebaugh’s forum is taking place in the Spanos Theater and starts at 7 p.m. on September 16.