CLEMSON — When Mate Adamkovics’ astronomy and physics students go on to brilliant careers, they can attribute at least part of their professional knowledge to a beautiful workhorse of a 20th Century spaceship called Cassini. After a 20-year mission spent studying Saturn and its moons, Cassini’s mission ended at 7:55 a.m. Friday.

“We’ll apply the tools that we learned from studying Titan’s atmosphere with the Cassini spacecraft to the planets around other stars and understanding exoplanet atmospheres” in the future, said Adamkovics, who joined the Clemson faculty as an assistant professor of astronomy and physics on Aug. 21, the week of the total eclipse.

Adamkovics studied data Cassini sent back to Earth as a planet origin researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He studied the weather around Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, using spectroscopy. Elements reflect light at different wavelengths, which appear as different colors. Spectroscopy breaks down light into its component colors, like a rainbow, to identify the elements.

NASA art of the Cassini spacecraft.The future for Adamkovics, and his students, is using the foundational research he did with Cassini data to understand how planets are formed — not just planets orbiting our sun, but the countless exoplanets around the galaxy.

But Cassini’s work has immediate use, too.

“We can apply much of the physics we use for understanding other planets, to our own planet. For understanding how our climate system works and how it’s changing with time,” Adamkovics said.

Cassini, about the size of a school bus, launched on Oct. 15, 1997, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. It succumbed to scorching friction in a planned plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere Friday morning.

In almost 20 years in space — nine short of a year on Saturn — the craft collected 635 gigabytes of data, according to NASA. It took more than 450,000 images and flew 4.9 billion miles.

A graphic image of the spacecraft with data for various milestones, like 4.9 million miles traveled since launch.

In NASA’s mission control room, engineers and managers watched Cassini’s radio waves like the pulsing beat of a heart monitor. As the spacecraft sped through Saturn’s atmosphere, engineers reported disruptions in its flight controls. Within seconds, the radio waves went flat.

NASA’s project manager called it: “End of mission.”

But it’s not the end of discovery. NASA, the European Space Agency and other international organizations, public and private, continually learn more about the worlds around us. Each discovery, Adamkovics said, tells us a little more about our life on Earth and the potential for life on other planets.

And, he said, each discovery drives the next generation of scientists.

“Each discovery is an opportunity to get somebody motivated for science and to ignite someone’s imagination for science and for all the capabilities that we have for exploring the solar system,” he says.

As for the mission’s ending, which Adamkovics watched via live stream, he said, “It’s amazing how much of an emotional impact the destruction of a scientific instrument can have. So many people put so much time and effort into the Cassini endeavor that it really touches you to have a discrete and final ending to the mission.”

NASA art of Saturn's rings colored purple, green and blue.

Image Credit: NASA