The stars have aligned for Canberra’s deep space station to be the first place on Earth to track the final moments of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft that’s been on a 20-year mission exploring Saturn.
The CSIRO’s experts at the Deep Space Communication Complex will train the centre’s massive antenna dishes on Cassini from about 1.15pm AEST on Friday as the countdown begins to the spacecraft’s planned disintegration within Saturn’s atmosphere.
About four hours later, the space station will start beaming live data from Cassini around the world for the first time since its mission began.
The bus-sized spacecraft will use its last drops of fuel to manoeuvre directly into Saturn’s atmosphere and, travelling at more than 110,000kmh, will only take minutes to break apart and melt about 10pm.
Glen Nagle, the outreach and administration lead at the space complex, expects it will be a bittersweet moment when the signal disappears, likening it to the end of a favourite TV show.
“We’ll be able to binge watch all the data and hope there’s going to be a sequel,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
The Canberra space complex was given the key role of transmitting Cassini’s final images of Saturn because the planet will be hovering above Australia on Friday.
Other space stations in Madrid and California will also help with its monitor.
Cassini is NASA’s first mission to explore Saturn.
The spacecraft has taken 450,000 images of the ringed planet, orbited it 293 times and collected 635GB of data since launching in October 1997.
It took seven years for Cassini to reach the gas planet, the second-largest in the solar system, and has spent 13 years orbiting it.
The $US3.26 billion ($A4.06 billion) mission has given scientists vital information about two of Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, as well as the planet itself, its icy rings.
Cassini also discovered six moons.
Scientists have learned that Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, and Enceladus, have the potential to support life, because they have rain, rivers and lakes.
Cassini has completed 22 deep dive orbits since April and scientists hope to learn from the final dive how long a day is in Saturn, with current estimates about 10 Earth hours.
The spacecraft is being destroyed to prevent a possible collision with Titan and Enceladus, which could lead to the moons becoming contaminated with bacteria Cassini may have carried from Earth into space.