Cassini will use its radar system to reveal Saturn moon's surface lakes and seas one last time
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will make its final close dive into Saturn’s moon Titan on April 22. The flyby will mark the end of the Ring-Grazing orbits – a phase started on November 30 last year and was based on a series of 20 dives in and around Saturn and its main rings.
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Titan, Saturn’s biggest moon, is filled with lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons, making it the only body in solar system to have such features besides Earth. In fact, liquid methane seas on Titan are among the most dramatic discoveries of Cassini’s 13-year long mission. The upcoming flyby will provide final the opportunity for getting close-up images of Titan’s surface and for peering into its hazy atmosphere.
“Closest approach to Titan is planned for 11:08 p.m. PDT on April 21 (2:08 a.m. EDT April 22). During the encounter, Cassini will pass as close as 608 miles (979 kilometers) above Titan's surface at a speed of about 13,000 mph (21,000 kph).” NASA statement reads.
With that encounter, Cassini will begin its Grand Finale, plunging into the rings and completing the final set of 22 dives through a narrow gap between Saturn and its innermost ring on April 26. The mission will be concluded with a final dive into Saturn’s atmosphere in September 15. During the Grand Finale, Cassini will make the closest-ever observations of Saturn and return closest, never-before-seen images of the planet's atmosphere.
Cassini's final flyby will be the 127th targeted encounter with Titan. Targeted encounters are some of the most exiting flybys during the Cassini mission in which spacecraft is actually aimed toward a specific moon at a predetermined distance. These encounters often yield incredible close-up views and lead to groundbreaking discoveries. During targeted encounters, the spacecraft keeps its instruments in the direction of a target using either its reaction wheels or thrusters.
This time, Cassini radar will look for changes in Titan’s lakes and seas as well as small areas on seas that appear and disappear over and over again. These mysterious areas are known as “magic islands” and have been detected by Cassini radar system during several previous close flybys.
Researchers are hoping to find an explanation for what could be creating these seemingly island-like features.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and has been exploring Saturn’s system since arriving in 2004. Now 20 years since launching from Earth and after 13 years orbiting the planet, Cassini is running out of fuel and will be intentionally crashed into the Saturn’s atmosphere later this year.