Cassini Spacecraft To Dive Inside Saturn's Rings For Mission Finale

Now, the aging spacecraft has almost depleted the fuel reserves it uses for navigation and corrections, and so NASA is ending the mission the best way it knows how: By making the craft dive repeatedly through the space between Saturn and its own rings until the time comes to crash Cassini right into the planet itself.

'What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve.

Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, said in many ways the spacecraft's grand finale was "like a brand new mission".

On the final orbit, Cassini will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, sending back new and unique science to the very end.

Following a final close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan, Cassini will leap over the planet's icy rings and begin a series of 22 weekly dives between the planet and the rings between April and September.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has done a hero's work since arriving at Saturn in 2004, but the aging spacecraft is reaching the end of its life.

After 13 years spent studying the giant planet, the probe is on its final mission. "We would never take a flagship mission on that kind of course in any other time in the mission except when its about to end". Space.com has a video showing what the final weeks of Cassini's mission will look like. When Cassini makes its final plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15, it will send data from several instruments - most notably, data on the atmosphere's composition - until its signal is lost. That includes collecting data that could hint at Saturn's internal structure and the origins of its rings and the first-ever sample of Saturn's atmosphere. A camera is expected to capture the closest views ever of Saturn's clouds and inner rings.

Researchers are preparing to update the probe's final scientific instructions.

"Based on our best models, we expect the gap to be clear of particles large enough to damage the spacecraft".

'But we're also being cautious by using our large antenna as a shield on the first pass, as we determine whether it's safe to expose the science instruments to that environment on future passes.

During the close ring encounters, Cassini also will study Saturn's atmosphere and take measurements to determine the size of the rocky core believed to exist at the center of the big ball of gas that accounts for most of its size. However, sending the spacecraft to its doom is far from a waste.

Although it will be a sad farewell to the intrepid spacecraft, Cassini's long life - starting in 1997 - has been dubbed by NASA as one of the most "scientifically rich voyages yet undertaken in our solar system".

  • Carolyn Briggs