NASA's Cassini Spacecraft Is Preparing For Its Death-Dive Into Saturn

Posted: Apr 6 2017, 10:02am CDT | by , Updated: Apr 6 2017, 10:12am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 
Cassini Spacecraft is Preparing for its Death-Dive into Saturn
Illustration shows Cassini Spacecraft making its final dive. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The grand finale dive will begun on April 26

After spending nearly 20 years in space, NASA’s Cassini mission is drawing near its end.

On April 26, Cassini will begin its Grand Finale, diving through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings before crashing itself into the planet's atmosphere later this year. As the spacecraft leaps over the planet to begin its finale, it will pass as close as 1,012 miles above the Saturn’s clouds and will take the best and closest images of Saturn's rings ever made.

"No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we'll attempt to boldly cross 22 times," said Thomas Zurbuchen from Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "What we learn from Cassini’s daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end.”

Launched in 1997, Cassini has been exploring Saturn, its rings and its moons since arriving there in 2004. During its more than a decade-long journey, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean inside the planet’s icy moon Enceladus and liquid methane seas on its largest moon Titan. Among the most successful missions in the history, Cassini is now running low on fuel and this has forced the officials to wrap up the mission but not before performing a series of daring orbits around the unexplored regions of the main rings.

"This planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life."

Currently, Cassini is in its Ring-Grazing orbit phase and is circling over and under the poles of Saturn with an aim of making a total of 20 dives. The phase was started on November 30 and will continue until April 22.

The bus-sized Cassini spacecraft is the fourth to reach Saturn and the first to enter its orbit. The spacecraft is designed to gain powerful insights into Saturn's internal structure, its atmosphere and the origins of its rings, even obtaining the first ever sample of particles from its main rings. During its last act, Cassini will wander too close to Saturn and got shredded by its gravitational power.

The final dive into the Saturn’ atmosphere is slated for September 15. During its plunge, Cassini will transmit data about the Saturn’s composition until the spacecraft is burnt and its signals are lost.

“Cassini's grand finale is so much more than a final plunge," said Spilker. "It's a thrilling final chapter for our intrepid spacecraft, and so scientifically rich that it was the clear and obvious choice for how to end the mission."

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