Launched in 1977, the Cassini Satellite was used to collect data on Saturn and its surrounding moons. Courtesy of Jani Radebaugh

Planetary scientist Jani Radebaugh spoke in the Alex and Faye Spanos Theatre Sept. 16 about her time working on the Cassini Satellite Radar Team sponsored by the Ross and Sue Benitez Space Exploration Forum. This is the second event put on by the Forum.

Radebaugh began her presentation with a general description of the Cassini Satellite. The satellite launched Oct. 15, 1997 and was intended to study and collect data about Saturn and its surrounding moons, some of which may harbor life.

Radebaugh’s job on the radar team was to research the geography of the planet by studying the surface of Saturn’s moons, such as Enceladus and Titan and explore regions on Earth with similar features. Her work allowed her to travel all over the world to countries and regions such as China, Iran and Antarctica.

Courtesy of Jani Radebaugh

“What really we’re thinking of when we’re back in the field is how can we better understand these [features] so we’re ready to study these on the surface of Titan,” Radebaugh said.

Through tears, Radebaugh described how the spacecraft ended its journey in spectacular fashion Sept. 15 at 4:55 p.m. PST. The Cassini team deliberately steered the craft into Saturn, and Cassini disintegrated in the atmosphere.

Although the bus-sized satellite was in perfect working condition, it was running low on fuel. This ran the risk of it crashing into one of Saturn’s 53 moons, some of which may hold life. If Cassini crash-landed on one of these moons, it could have potentially contaminated the moon with microorganisms from Earth. In the future, scientists would be unable to tell if these microorganisms were from Earth or originated on the moon.

The Cassini team will now disband, as the engineers who work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory begin work on other projects. Scientists will continue to study the data that Cassini collected, likely for the rest of Radebaugh’s career.

“It’s almost like we’re sailing on a ship, all of us together, and it’s like the engineers dropped off the scientists at a port and continued on to the ocean,” Radebaugh said.

After the event concluded, the Cal Poly Astronomical Society set up large telescopes so attendees could view Saturn for themselves.

Correction: A previous version of this article said the Cassini Satellite launched Oct. 15, 1977. It has been corrected to
Oct. 15, 1997.

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