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Space & Astronomy

Cassini probe begins its final year at Saturn

By T.K. Randall
September 21, 2016 · Comment icon 5 comments

Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn for 12 years. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA's highly successful spacecraft will soon be getting up close and personal with the gas giant itself.
Originally launched all the way back in 1997 and arriving in orbit around Saturn in 2004, Cassini, which initially came paired with ESA's Titan-bound Huygens lander, has been one of the biggest success stories in space exploration over the last two decades.

Brimming with an array of sophisticated instrumentation, Cassini has sent back huge amounts of information about Saturn and its moons as well as about its fascinating and enigmatic ring system.

Now entering its final year, the probe is set to begin edging ever closer to the planet's rings as part of a series of increasingly risky orbits that will provide scientists with a whole new view of Saturn.

"During the F-ring orbits we expect to see the rings, along with the small moons and other structures embedded in them, as never before," said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker.
"The last time we got this close to the rings was during arrival at Saturn in 2004, and we saw only their backlit side. Now we have dozens of opportunities to examine their structure at extremely high resolution on both sides."

The final phase of the mission, which has been named 'The Grand Finale', will see Cassini actually passing through the gap between Saturn and its rings - an unexplored region 1,500 miles wide.

Then in September of next year, the aged spacecraft will begin its ultimate descent - a suicidal maneuver that will send it plummeting through Saturn's atmosphere, collecting data as it goes.

It will continue to transmit its findings until, with the friction of the gas giant's swirling atmosphere heating its exterior to breaking point, it will finally go silent as it meets its fiery demise.

Source: Spaceflight Insider | Comments (5)

Recent comments on this story
Comment icon #1 Posted by Sundew 6 years ago
Surely one of our most interesting outer planetary missions! The photos were stunning and I'm sure as a layman I can't begin to appreciate all the data collected. I remember the launch of the Cassini and all the angst and protest amongst the college students at Rollins College near Orlando, Florida. They were all wailing and crying because the craft was powered by Plutonium and acting like we were all going to die. Instead we were treated to a vision of the cosmos that continues to fascinate to this day. Hopefully we will get photos along with the data as it makes its final approach!
Comment icon #2 Posted by Derek Willis 6 years ago
Whenever anyone feels the need to criticize NASA - and no organization can be perfect - try to remember some of the amazing missions the agency has mounted. Cassini/Huygens has been a huge success.  
Comment icon #3 Posted by paperdyer 6 years ago
Is the probe just wearing out or is the mission out of money?  It seems like the probe could gather even more info if given a chance.
Comment icon #4 Posted by Sundew 6 years ago
It's only a guess, but likely radiation and possible impacts with debris (dust) around Saturn take its toll over time. I assume, perhaps wrongly, that the mission had a timeline they set for each part of the exploration, although in some missions they let the vehicles run until they can go no further. Perhaps they feel the data on the moons and rings is now being largely duplicated also and it's time for data on the planet's atmosphere before the craft becomes unresponsive. Waspie probably can give you a more definitive answer.  Saturn and Jupiter certainly are the more interesting planetary s... [More]
Comment icon #5 Posted by Merc14 6 years ago
It has taken some wear and tear but the big thing is they are running out of rocket fuel and they don't want to dial it up one day and find they have lost control of the craft.  The main fear, however unlikely, is it could crash into one of the two moons that may contain some form of life and so rather than take a chance they'll end the mission on their terms and destroy the craft in a controlled way.

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