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NASA's Cassini Mission Prepares for 'Final Plunge', Begins Final Year in Saturn

Sep 19, 2016 03:49 AM EDT
FILE PHOTO - Cassini Spacecraft Prepares To Enter Saturn's Orbit
NASA's Cassini mission will end in Sept. 17, but the spacecraft will perform a series of orbits first called the "Grand Finale" before it plunges to its death.
(Photo : NASA via Getty Images)

Cassini is expected to end its mission with a bang!

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been studying the ringed planet Saturn and its moons for 12 years. However, like all other man-made spacecraft like ESA's Rosetta scheduled to crash on a comet by the end of the month, Cassini is nearing the end of its life and it has started its last year to observe and study Saturn and its rings before it plunges to its death.

The Cassini mission, dubbed as one of the most ambitious planetary explorations, is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI). By the end of 2016, Cassini will start its "Grand Finale" mission that is in preparation for its final plunge next year.

Cassini has entered its final year in Saturn after 12 years of orbiting the region. In September 2017, Cassini is scheduled to take its final plunge. But before that, the spacecraft needs to perform a "Grand Finale" consisting of "daring sets of orbits" that scientists treat as another mission by itself. 

"The spacecraft will repeatedly climb high above Saturn's poles, flying just outside its narrow F ring 20 times. After a last targeted Titan flyby, the spacecraft will then dive between Saturn's uppermost atmosphere and its innermost ring 22 times," said Brian Dunbar, a NASA official in an official statement.

The two-part endgame will begin on Nov. 30 this year when Cassini attempts to orbit right outside the outer edge of Saturn's ring. The 20-orbit series is called F-ring orbits. During the series, Cassini will approach the rings within 4,850 miles (7,800 kilometers) at the center of the narrow F-ring. The spacecraft will strategically place itself in a location where it can study the space between the planet and its ring, according to a report.

"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," Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "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 mission scientists designed the Cassini probe to collect never-before-seen data and dangerous maneuvers called the Grand Finale before it's death. During this time, the spacecraft will be able to collect new and science-worthy data that scientists haven't seen before.


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