Tag Archives: NASA

Cassini’s last images have been taken

Cassini took its last pictures, including a stirring set of images showing Enceladus off the limb of Saturn, and has been downlinking them to Earth.  JPL is putting them up as quickly as possible.  The main communications currently are still through the big Mars antenna at Goldstone, but the big dish at Canberra has started to pick up the carrier signal and will soon take over the task of talking to Cassini; that dish will be dedicated to Cassini for the remainder of the mission.  Around midnight here in Central Daylight Time, Cassini will pass the orbit of Enceladus and begin moving once more into the domain of the ring system.  Finally, at 5:32 CDT, Cassini is expected to lose its lock on Earth due to excessive aerodynamic forces, and at 6:55 CDT, the signal received on Earth will cut off.  It will be over.

But it will not be soon forgotten.


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Cassini: just a little over a day left

The Cassini spacecraft has just one day and eight hours left to live, and after thirteen years in Saturn orbit, it’s hard not to feel a little choked up thinking about it.  I just rewatched this animation, and I gotta admit . . . it got awfully dusty in here . . . .

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The next crew is on its way to the ISS!

Soyuz MS-06 launched today!  And actually, by the time I’m writing this, they’re at the ISS, docked and preparing to board.  Here’s the spectacular nighttime launch from Baikonur Cosmodrome:

On board are Alexander Misurkin, Mark Vande Hei, Joe Acaba.  They are expected to stay in space until late February.

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Cassini’s “Goodbye Kiss” of Titan is complete

One step closer to the bittersweet end of a magnificent mission….  Cassini said goodbye to Titan today, where its companion, the Huygens probe, rests permanently.  There was a final sequence of images taken, which have now been downlinked to Earth.  Here’s one of the raw images in the sequence, this one taken through the CL1 and CB3 filters, which allows it to peer a bit through the smog to make out a hazy glimpse of Titan’s surface features:

Goodbye, Titan….I hope we visit again soon.  😉

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Cassini’s Solar System Scrapbook

Cassini has completed its second-to-last ring plane crossing.  There’s only one more left before the final and fatal atmospheric entry.  But before it goes, Cassini completed a sort of family scrapbook of the solar system, by adding Neptune.  Here are some highlights of Cassini’s solar system scrapbook (which skips Mercury because it’s far too close to the Sun for Cassini to photograph):

Venus, Earth, and Mars

Venus, Earth and Mars, the only rocky planets easily observable from Saturn, as seen during the equivalent of a total solar eclipse around Saturn — Saturn is backlit by the Sun here. This was captured July 19, 2013.

Earth (and Moon), closeup from last image

This is a mega huge zoom in on the picture above.


Captured just before an Earth gravity assist maneuver, this is the Moon as seen on August 17, 1999. The spacecraft did not attempt to photograph the Earth during closest approach.

It’s worth also adding this. It’s the last image Cassini will ever take of Earth, captured April 12, 2017.


This was captured on December 29, 2000, while Cassini was grabbing a gravity assist boost from the giant planet.


There’s really no end of good Saturn pics, but I quite like this one, taken last year as Saturn approached the summer solstice in its northern hemisphere.


This blue planet against Saturn’s rings is not Earth. That little blue dot is the larger of the two “ice giants”, Uranus. I sincerely hope this is not the closest we’ll get to it in the 21st Century; it’s an astonishingly bizarre world that would seriously test a lot of basic science about planetary formation, magnetospheres, and so forth. This was captured April 11, 2014.


This is the most recent addition to the scrapbook, a zoom-in enhanced version of an image taken Aug. 10, 2017, commemorating Voyager 2’s flyby on August 25, 1989 and the 40th anniversary of the mission’s launch on August 20, 1977. This is Neptune and its largest moon, Triton.


Call it a consolation for not nabbing Mercury; Cassini captured this image of the dwarf planet Pluto on July 14, 2015, just as New Horizons was making its closest approach. (Naturally, New Horizons got much better pictures!)


It’s bittersweet, waiting for the end, but it helps to remember the amazing things Cassini has been doing.  Like Voyager 1 before it, Cassini is leaving behind portraits of our solar system.

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Peggy Whitson has set a new record!

With the return of Soyuz MS-04, Peggy Whitson has established a new record — at 665 days, the most cumulative spaceflight hours for any woman on Earth, and also for any American.  Globally, she stands at #8 for cumulative spaceflight time.  She is also the only woman to have commanded the ISS twice, and also holds the female record for number of EVAs (ten, with a cumulative time of 60 hours, 21 minutes — there are only two men ahead of her in the overall records, Anatoly Solovyev and Michael Lopez-Alegria, with the caveat that record-holder Solovyev’s 16 EVAs does include two internal spacewalks aboard Mir).

Whitson returned in good health, as did her two crewmates, Soyuz commander Fyodor Yurchikhin and flight engineer Jack Fischer.  There’s gorgeous video of the final descent:

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The Eclipse – From SPACE!

The eclipse wasn’t just visible here on Earth — it was visible from above it as well!  Sometimes the view looked rather familiar, as here, from the ISS (shot by astronaut Randy Bresnik).  Why so familiar?  Well, the ISS isn’t actually that much higher than where we are on the ground.  Just 250 or so miles closer to a Moon that is a quarter of a million miles away.

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory also got a view from its sun-synchronous orbit.  It’s view is a little bit different, because it actually orbits well above to geosynchronous altitude, and sometimes sees very different solar eclipses compared to what we see — from its perspective, the Moon can appear much smaller or much larger, depending on the specific orbital circumstances at the time of the eclipse.  Most of the eclipses seen by SDO are not visible at all from Earth.

But the coolest images of the eclipse from space are, in my opinion, those of the Earth.  From this perspective, what we see as a total solar eclipse is more like a lunar eclipse, because here you’re not seeing the Sun eclipsed.  Instead, you’re seeing the Moon’s shadow passing over the Earth.  Here it is, looking quite ominous in some clouds as seen by the ISS:

This one looks less ominous as it’s less zoomed in, but it has better context as you can see part of the ISS’s solar arrays, radiators, the tanks on the Quest airlock, the Rassvet module, and the Soyuz MS-05 spacecraft which delivered the most recent ISS crewmates: Sergey Ryazanskiy, Randy Bresnik, and Paolo Nespoli.

And of course lastly, there’s the ultimate solar-eclipse-from-space view, courtesy of the DSCOVR spacecraft.  DSCOVR sits at the Sun-Earth L1 point, which means it gets an uninterrupted view of the Earth’s sunlit hemisphere at all times.  DSCOVR’s EPIC instrument takes full-color full-disk images every two hours and transmits them back to Earth.  This allows it to observe the full path of every total solar eclipse — and yes, it really does track the same way as the animations did.  You may notice, however, that the shadow is much messier than the computer animations you may have seen before the eclipse; the Moon has both a penumbra and an umbra, and that makes it fuzzy.  Only in the umbra (the darkest, tiny core of the shadow) do you experience totality.

All images are from NASA’s eclipse image collection, which you should really check out — it’s got more cool images that are well worth seeing!

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