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Cassini's 'Grand Finale' Will End in Fire

Jul 02, 2014 01:01 PM EDT
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After orbiting Saturn and its respective moons for a decade, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is entering the last phase of what the Cassini team has been calling its "extended-extended mission." This final phase has been coined "the Grand Finale" by the general public, and will end with Cassini throwing itself into Saturn's fiery atmosphere.

According to NASA and the Cassini mission team, the old spacecraft soon "begin a daring set of orbits that is, in some ways, like a whole new mission."

Cassini reportedly will climb high above Saturn's north pole, eventually plummeting downwards, whipping around the planet's narrow F-ring. This loop will be made several times, with various trajectory adjustments made to better probe fascination geyser phenomena on the moon Enceladus. The craft will then "hop" the rings to dive between the planet and the innermost ring 22 times, drawing closer and closer to Saturn's atmosphere along the way. Eventually the craft will enter the atmosphere, burning up after reaching remarkable speeds.

The Cassini team chose to end the spacecraft in Saturn's atmosphere rather than on one of its many moons to avoid harming or impacting the development of potential microbial life, according to TheSpaceReporter.

Because Cassini will be doing so many close passes to Saturn in this final stage, the team had initially called the phase "the proximinal orbits." However, such a clunky name for the end of Cassini's incredibly impactful existence didn't sit right with NASA, who asked the public to vote on a more fitting name.

More than 2,000 members of the public voted, with "the Cassini Grand Finale" ending up as the winner.

"We chose a name for this mission phase that would reflect the exciting journey ahead while acknowledging that it's a big finish for what has been a truly great show," Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Cali., said in a statement.

Cassini is slated to begin its Grand Finale in late 2016.

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