Cassini probe's death dive to send data at just 27 kilobits per second
Which is why its cameras will stop snapping a day before it smacks into Saturn
Space is nasty and sending data across 83 light-minutes of it isn't easy, so the Cassini probe's death dive into the clouds of Saturn will be an instruments-only affair undocumented by photographs.
Cassini has surveyed Saturn since 2004 but is out of fuel, so will be crashed into Saturn instead of leaving it an an orbit that could one day see it collide with the gas giant's moons. Mission boffins decided such a collision was unacceptable because it would pollute places like Enceladus, a moon known to have an ocean and thought to be a candidate for hosting life.
The probe is expected to burn up quickly in Saturn's clouds on, a fate felt to be less likely to contaminate the environment than a moon-mashing denouement.
Cassini is expected to send its last signal on Friday, September 15th at 03:32Pacific Daylight Time. That data will land on Earth at 04:55 PDT.
The probe's final moments will be recorded as data only, because in preparation for its death dive, the probe will stop snapping photos the day before because, as the ESA puts it, “the data transmission rate required to send images is too high and would prevent other high-value science data from being returned.”
NASA reveals that Cassini's final configuration will see it set up to send data at just 27 kilobits per second.
The good news is that Cassini will have eight instruments working during its death dive, including an on-board dust analyser, magnetometer and spectrometers.
But even if they keep working beyond 03:32, we won't know what they see because the manoeuvre that will kill Cassini will see its high-gain antenna pointed away from Earth.
Neither the ESA or NASA has current plans to revisit Saturn, so every last bit of data we can recover from Cassini will be welcome. ®