It’s 15 September at the NASA Deep Space Communication Network in Canberra, Australia. Display screens show the status of the four radio telescopes on site – two of them are quietly and dependably communicating with the distant Voyager 2 probe, the other two have just fallen deathly silent. After 13 years at Saturn (and two decades in space), Cassini is no more. It is an ex probe.
Rumour has it that NASA employed grief counsellors for staff of their Jet Propulsion Laboratory – many of whom devoted decades of their life to the Cassini mission. And it wasn’t for nought. Dramatic visions of strange new worlds, methane lakes and electric dunes on Titan, ice volcanoes on Enceladus. In its 13 years at Saturn, Cassini has changed our view of the Solar System forever.
While Cassini may be gone, future missions still have a great deal to offer at Saturn, and further afield – not least the potential for life in the ocean of the aforementioned tiny ice moon Enceladus. But for the time being, NASA will be focussing all its attention on Jupiter, and the spacecraft Juno which has been in orbit since last summer. Juno – currently probing Jupiter’s inner depths in a series of rapid dives above the cloud tops – is scheduled to operate until at least July 2018 with a good chance that the mission will be extended further.
And it’s not just Juno, either – there are two m
ore Jupiter missions planned for launch in the next few years. First on the docket is the NASA Europa Clipper mission, which is being fast tracked to visit the water rich (and perhaps life hosting) moon Europa. Scheduled to launch in 2022 and arrive in 2025, Clipper will perform 40 flybys of Europa in a similar manner to Juno: avoiding a traditional orbit in the hope of escaping the worst of Jupiter’s deadly magnetic field. And that’s not the end of it. In late 2015, NASA was instructed by Congress to add a lander to the Clipper probe – a lander that could potentially dig into the ice and search for signs of life.
The second mission is the delightfully named JUICE (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer), currently being put together by the European Space Agency (ESA). JUICE will also visit Europa in addition to two other icy Galilean moons, Ganymede and Callisto. Scheduled to lift off in 2022, the probe will arrive at Jupiter in 2029 and will also study Jupiter’s atmospheric and magnetic environments.
But what’s next for Saturn? Well, NASA is already well on the way with their Cassini follow up mission. A number of candidates are already on the drawing board – all focussing on either Titan or Enceladus, with an expected announcement sometime in 2019 for a launch in 2025.Further down the line, plans are also afoot to revisit the ice giants Uranus and Neptune, with an orbiter for one (or both) to be sent in the 2030s to coincide with favourable planetary alignments.
Closer to home, the OSIRIS-REX (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) mission, launched last winter, is currently winging its way to 101955 Bennu – a potential deadly asteroid for us – with the aim of collecting rocky samples and returning them to Earth in 2023.And that’s just the robots. While any potential human mission to Mars is still a while off – NASA are understandably tetchy about safety – what’s more likely in the coming years is a return to the moon. There are currently a variety of international missions all looking to use our satellite as a base to test any new technology for a potential Mars mission.
So, while humans might not be going very far any time soon, one thing is for certain – our robot buddies have a bright future. Brighter than ours, perhaps. And given the overwhelming success of Cassini, we could be bold enough to say that’s not something to be too sad about.