The fate of Saturn and Cassini

It started with one picture:

4vopha9I’m going to handle this one like Randal’s “What If” section, only without his fancy stick figures and what not.. I also think you should go read every one he posts.. New Netherlands demands it..

Could it start a second sun?

No, it wont. Why? Multiple reasons. First, nuclear fusion requires a lot of heat; something Saturn is seriously lacking. With the average temperature of Saturn being a balmy -3 degrees C (that’s 270 K), it will never be hot enough to sustain a nuclear reaction. Second, Nuclear reactions don’t exist outside of Hydrogen/Helium fusion, which is what the core of our Sun is. So, the Plutonium on board Cassini is in no danger of obliterating itself, even if substantial planetary pressure starts to affect it. Third, it’s powered by 238Pu, not the deadly 239Pu, which means the element is not fissile. Fourth, a nuclear bomb doesn’t work that way.. go look it up. Lastly, Saturn doesn’t have the mass required to sustain a fusion reaction like our Sun.

How long would it take to “Crash”?

Well, Cassini is orbiting Saturn.. most of the time.. it does flip back and forth to Titan and do other things, but usually it’s flying around our ringed friend at an average of 23.78km/s, with it’s current speed (relative to post date) is about 13km/s. With that, we know that it will purposefully be crashed into Saturn sometime in 2017. However, let’s assume that NASA is disbanded (PLEASE NO!) and no one is there to send the kill command? What then? Well, at it’s current rate of unassisted descent of 100m/s, and it’s distance of 2.312 million KM from the “surface” (read: 1 bar of pressure below upper atmosphere), well, basic math.. just under 440 Earth years.

What will happen when it crashes (however which way it does)?

Nothing. It will slowly crumple in on itself, and the nasty radioactive materials will just fuse together with whatever else is nearby. It will eventually molecularly decay and be spread out across the atmosphere and mix it’s particles in with the atmosphere and planet, possibly even the rings. Nothing will be visible from Earth, and the general layout of Saturn will remain unchanged.. aside from being slightly more radioactive for a few thousand years.

What’s the worst case scenario?

What, that we lose an awesome space probe? Nothing. It’s going to be killed off in a few years, leading the way for better technology. However, that’s not what you’re asking. What if some stray meteor came flying by, smashing into Cassini, propelling it away from Saturn and on a direct collision course with Earth, right? That’s what you want to know?

Nothing would happen. A few people might get cancer from the radioactive materials being spread out across our atmosphere and eventually down to the surface, but we’re talking less than 5000 people globally. No matter the entry angle, it wouldn’t survive in such a state that it would impact and cause a city wide nuclear explosion. This isn’t Hollywood. Assuming it did somehow stay intact through atmospheric re-entry, it would be lucky to cause a crater a few feet wide, a single meter or less deep, and it may take out a house or two. The radioactivity on the hand would and probably could take out the city block or more though..

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