06 April, 2017
At the end of these loops between the planet and its rings, the spacecraft will do a death dive into the planet.
After 13 years spent studying the giant planet, the probe is on its final mission. But in some ways, the mission's final phase that kicks off later this month could prove even more fruitful, with the deep-space probe making a series of daring passes through the gap between Saturn and its rings, where scientists expect it to make some of its most extraordinary discoveries before burning up in the atmosphere.
"The planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists", says Linda Spilker (NASA-JPL) in a recent press release. In 2010, NASA chose to end the mission with a purposeful plunge into Saturn this year in order to protect and preserve the planet's moons for future exploration - especially the potentially habitable icy moon Enceladus.
Before it retires, Cassini will pass near Saturn and give us the closest look yet at what goes on in Saturn's rings.
Cassini has been a decades-long odyssey for the scientists involved, and the probe's 3-minute final dive into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15 will be a bittersweet moment, the researchers said.
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During its mission, Cassini made close approaches to Mimas only seven flybys at distances of less than 31,000 miles (50,000 kilometers). But the mission could meet a premature end if a ring particle hits Cassini.
Cassini launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004.
"We're going to a place and obtaining data with the Cassini spacecraft, we could only obtain by doing it this way", she said. As it descends, it will struggle to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth to deliver atmospheric data about the planet's skies and in a matter of minutes, it will burn to a crisp and become one with Saturn.
"Cassini's own discoveries were its demise", Maize said.
"Getting this close to the rings and the planet, that is a once in a life time experience for a scientist like me", Spilker said.
Astronomer Fred Watson, from the Australian astronomical observatory, said the Cassini mission was one of the most successful NASA missions ever. Some of these moons-like Enceladus with its underground water oceans and Titan with its methane lakes and rivers-could potentially be home to primitive extraterrestrial life, and we can't risk contaminating them with the microbes on Cassini.