After two decades orbiting Saturn, the school-bus sized satellite known as Cassini on Friday will plummet into the hazy ringed orb where it will melt and, in its final moments, probably explode.
When it does, Lee Silva will lose a friend.
Silva, who lives in Garden Grove, joined the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge in 1996 as a test engineer, shaking and rattling bits of Cassini to ensure it could survive the arduous trip through Earth’s atmosphere, harness the gravity of several planets in the solar system, and make the seven-year trek to Saturn. Silva is one of about 5,000 engineers and scientists who have worked on the craft over the decades.
“Every once in a while I’ll think, ‘Can you imagine? I worked on something that’s in space’,” Silva said.
Because of Cassini, we’ve learned that Saturn’s moon Enceladus has a liquid ocean and hydrothermal vents. If there is life in our solar system outside of earth, Enceladus could be the best place to look. The satellite also detected liquid methane on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. And Cassini told us that sixth planet from the sun has no fewer than 63 moons and moonlets.
At a cost of $3 billion, and weighing in at 2,400 kilograms without fuel, Cassini was the largest outer planetary space craft the United States has ever sent into space, said Julie Webster, the head of Cassini spacecraft operations, when reached in the mission support area of Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Webster will stay at mission support until 4:55 a.m. Friday, when Cassini is expected to shoot into Saturn’s atmosphere begin to melt as it approaches the planet’s 21,000 degree core. As it descends, pieces of the satellite will disintegrate and eventually its propulsion tanks may explode.
Webster has worked on the craft for 23 years. She wants to make sure Cassini remains “healthy” to the end on Friday. Then, on Sunday, she and others will attend a wake of sorts for the craft.
“It’s truly amazing,”…