Cassini probe set to begin 'Grand Finale' dive into Saturn's atmosphere

Cassini probe set to begin 'Grand Finale' dive into Saturn's atmosphere
Cassini probe set to begin 'Grand Finale' dive into Saturn's atmosphere

06 April, 2017

This Grand Finale, as NASA is dubbing it, begins on April 22 when the spacecraft makes a flyby of Titan, using that moon's gravity to turn toward Saturn.

A natural-color image of Saturn from space, the first in which Saturn, its moons and rings, and Earth, Venus and Mars, all are visible, is seen in this NASA handout taken from the Cassini spacecraft July 19, 2013 and released November 12, 2013.

Over the last 13 years, NASA's Cassini orbiter has conducted some of the most important science around Saturn and its moons.

"The Grand Finale is a brand-new mission", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said information collected by Cassini in its final dives "will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve".

Artist's concept of Cassini's final orbits between the innermost rings and Saturn's cloud tops.

But Cassini and the team of scientists behind it have a poetic side, as well, revealing a glorious back-lit Saturn as the spacecraft passed through the planet's shadow.

The probe's final orbits are a full mission on their own.

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Cassini's Grand Finale is occurring this year because the spacecraft has been so active and so prolific, Maize added.

But the beginning of the end for Cassini is, in many ways, like a whole new mission.

On Christmas Day 2004, Cassini launched its trusted buddy, the Huygens probe, onto Titan. To get there, Cassini will slingshot off Saturn's moon Titan on April 22. Some material from Saturn's rings is always falling toward the surface of the planet, and at the speeds Cassini is traveling, a particle the size of a grain of sand could seriously damage the spacecraft.

"Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life". After losing contact with Earth, the spacecraft will burn up like a meteor, becoming part of the planet itself. Saturn's unique environment has acted like a natural laboratory, demonstrating how moons are formed and destroyed - findings that can be scaled up to better understand how planets formed around the sun and, perhaps, around other stars, scientists have said.

But even in its final moments, Cassini will continue to send new data in real time back to Earth. The agency also pondered crashing the craft into one of the planet's 62 moons, but ultimately decided not to contaminate them for possible future missions.

During its time circling Saturn's system Cassini has gathered a wide array of data, as well as dropping the probe, Huygen, on Titan.

In its season of "lasts", NASA's Cassini spacecraft made its final close approach to Mimas on January 30, 2017.

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