NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft Set To Begin Final Five Orbits Around Saturn

Posted: Aug 13 2017, 7:40am CDT | by , Updated: Aug 13 2017, 7:43am CDT, in News | Latest Science News

 

NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft Set to Begin Final Five Orbits around Saturn
Credit: James Vaughan / SpaceFlight Insider
 

On Sunday, August 13, the spacecraft will make the first of five passes over Saturn's upper atmosphere

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is about to begin its final close encounters with Saturn. The spacecraft will make the first of final five passes over Saturn on Sunday, August 13 and dive as low as 1,060 miles above the surface. These flybys will provide Cassini an opportunity to closely observe the planet and to study its atmosphere and composition in detail. 

Saturn atmosphere is expected to be dense, similar to the one encountered by Cassini during its close flybys of Saturn's moon Titan. Having the better understanding of the conditions will eventually lead to more controlled and secure journey.

“Cassini's Titan flybys prepared us for these rapid passes through Saturn's upper atmosphere," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Thanks to our past experience, the team is confident that we understand how the spacecraft will behave at the atmospheric densities our models predict.”

Launched in 1997, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is exploring Saturn system since its arrival in 2004. During its times at Saturn, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean on planet’s icy moon Enceladus and liquid methane seas on its biggest moon, Titan. 

After spending 13 years around Saturn, the spacecraft is now running low on fuel. Therefore, the mission is scheduled to end with a final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15. To maximize the scientific value of sending the spacecraft to Saturn, NASA decided that Cassini will make multiple purposeful passes over Saturn before crashing into its atmosphere.

Between Nov. 30 and April 22, Cassini circled over and under the poles of Saturn and dove repeatedly through the previously unexplored region outside main rings. That phase of the mission was called Ring-Grazing Orbits. The final close flyby of the phase on April 21 was also the gateway to Cassini’s Grand Finale, which comprised of a final set of 22 plunges through the 1,500-mile-wide gap between Saturn and its innermost ring. During that encounter, Titan’s gravity bended Cassini's orbit around Saturn and shrunk it slightly, so that instead of passing outer edges of the rings, the spacecraft dived inside the rings.

With these dives, researchers are hoping to get powerful insights into the planet's internal structure and the origins of the rings as well as the opportunity to capture the closest-ever views of Saturn's ringed system. Upon the completion of dives, Cassini will head toward its final, devastating plunge.

“As it makes these five dips into Saturn, followed by its final plunge, Cassini will become the first Saturn atmospheric probe," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. "It's long been a goal in planetary exploration to send a dedicated probe into the atmosphere of Saturn, and we're laying the groundwork for future exploration with this first foray."

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