Cheers, tears as scientists mark end of "a perfect spacecraft"

WASHINGTON, Frank Fuhrig (dpa)- The scientists who devoted their careers to the Cassini mission's exploration of Saturn celebrated and mourned as the space probe met its demise.
Cassini was an unmanned mission, but Julie Webster actually sat inside the spacecraft before its launch in October 1997.

After NASA received Cassini's last transmission on Friday as the space probe flew to its demise in Saturn's atmosphere, Webster, stood up in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's mission control arena in Pasadena, California, applauded and embraced colleague Earl Maize, who had similarly worked most of his career on Cassini.
"I almost have no words," Webster, spacecraft operations team manager for the 20-year mission, told reporters later in a press conference.
"I've been on this mission since it was built."
The Cassini-Huygens mission, a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, was launched in October 1997 and reached Saturn's orbit in 2004.
The Cassini orbiter launched in October 1997 carrying the Huygens probe. The spacecraft came into Saturn's gravitational influence in 2004, and in 2005 jettisoned the Huygens craft to explore Titan, one of the planet's moons, exposing Earth-like characteristics.
Webster spoke at length about the engineers and scientists in the 1990s who designed and built Cassini-Huygens - reconciling what was scientifically imaginable with the technically achievable.
She choked back emotions before saying that the team "built a perfect spacecraft."
"This has truly been beyond my wildest dreams," Webster said.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA, showed a recent group photo of the hundreds of people working on the mission, "a diverse set of people from all walks of life" and 26 countries representing the US space agency and its Cassini partners, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.
"This is Cassini," Zurbuchen said.
Alvaro Gimenez Canete, the European Space Agency's science director, said he hoped that the success of Cassini would point the way toward future collaborative missions, political considerations aside.
"We are convinced that this is the way to go," he said.
"The scientific community is totally mixed. They are working together, regardless of what the agencies do."
Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, worked for 30 years on the mission, which she described as a "marathon." Friday's conclusion was a "celebration of successfully completing the race," she said.
The end of the mission with the reception of the final signals at 1155 GMT - before 5 am local time at mission control in California - was met by the entire team "with applause and tears, because it felt like losing a friend," Spilker said.
Before Cassini was launched, the signatures of mission participants at the time were digitized on a CD aboard the vessel.
"So a little piece of me went into Saturn's atmosphere along with Cassini," Spilker said.
"Goodbye, Cassini, thanks for the ring-side seat at Saturn."
Still on Earth, she lamented "the breakup of the Cassini family."
"But it's both an end and a beginning," Spilker said, "as these people go and work on other things."
NASA is currently seeking proposals - with finalists to be named in late 2017 - for future scientific missions including returns to Titan and Enceladus, another moon where Cassini made close observations in 2005. Another mission under consideration would target Saturn to survive longer and probe deeper into the ringed planet's atmosphere than Cassini's few minutes on Friday.
"We will be back," Zurbuchen said.

Monday, September 18th 2017
Frank Fuhrig

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