Saturn's Cassini Spacecraft Mission to Approach Tour Finale
The Saturn Cassini Spacecraft is nearing the finale of its mission. Having already spent 12 years circling the ringed planet and the moons surrounding it, the spacecraft is ready to perform its daredevil stunt.
Cassini is set to dive extremely close to Saturn's rings in the course of the next nine months. While it might seem like a destructive end, NASA states it is necessary as fuel is already running low. But NASA is making sure that the probe doesn't end up crashing into Saturn's moons, particularly Titan and Enceladus as they reportedly harbor life and a satellite colliding into them could introduce contamination.
On Wednesday, Cassini is scheduled to climb above Saturn's north pole. Then it would plunge to a point outside of Saturn's F ring, which is the outer boundary of the main ring system. Cassini is set to do 20 orbits or more, along with taking samples of the gases and particles on the F ring.
"Even though we're flying closer to the F ring than we ever have, we'll still be more than 4,850 miles (7,800 kilometers) distant," stated project manager Earl Maize, adding, "There's very little concern over dust hazard at that range."
By April 22, 2017, Cassini will take a series of dives between the inner edge of Saturn's rings and its atmosphere. According to NASA, it could pass to less than 2,000 kilometers above Saturn's clouds.
"We're calling this phase of the mission Cassini's Ring-Grazing Orbits, because we'll be skimming past the outer edge of the rings," said Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, adding, "In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ringplane, so in a sense Cassini is also 'grazing' on the rings."
Cassini is a joint venture between the European Space Agency (ESA), NASA, and Italian Space Agency. The probe was launched back in 1997 but wasn't until July 2004 when it arrived in Saturn.