Last adventure for NASA's Cassini spacecraft at Saturn

Enceladus

After almost 20 years of traveling in space, Cassini used the gravitational tug of Titan, a moon resembling primordial Earth, to hurl itself into a new orbit that will pass through an unexplored region between Saturn's cloud tops and its rings.

Currently, Cassini is getting ready for its final close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan.

"If Cassini runs out of fuel it would be uncontrolled and the possibility that it could crash-land on the moons of Titan and/or Enceladus are unacceptably high", said Dr Earl Maize, Nasa's Cassini programme manager. It's treacherous territory. Even a speck from the rings could cripple Cassini, given its velocity. That night at 10:46 p.m. CDT, Cassini will enter the first of its Grand Finale orbits, a series of 22 weekly dives between the planet and the rings.

On September 15, the NASA Cassini spacecraft will head towards its fateful plunge into Saturn and will beam back data from several instruments until it loses contact with Earth.

Cassini was launched in 1997, and since reaching Saturn in 2004, it has been completing circles around the Saturn.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is heading toward the gateway to its Grand Finale.


In the years that it has been studying the Saturnian system, the probe has flown by the haze-shrouded world on 126 occasions - each time getting a kick that bends its path towards a new region of interest.

"We hope to accomplish a lot of incredible science, things that we have never been able to do before with the Cassini mission", said Morgan Cable, Cassini project scientist. The concern is whether computer models of Saturn's rings are accurate.

Now, the spacecraft is making new discoveries in a second extension called the Cassini Solstice Mission.

The mission, which is about to end some time this year, has definitely been a fruitful one, owing to all the wonderfully insightful information scientists have managed to glean from it.

If the models are wrong and Cassini is clobbered by BB-size material, it still will end up exactly where NASA is aiming for on September 15 - at Saturn. The Encke gap - also within Saturn's A ring - is visible in the upper right of the photo. A cosmic dust analyzer on Cassini will scoop up ring particles and analyze them.

Cassini will now plunge to its ultimate end for the good of mankind as it begins a suicide descent towards Saturn. This should improve our knowledge of how much material is in the rings and help us understand their origins.

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