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Cassini Prepares For 'Ring-Grazing' Orbits Near Saturn as Part of Its End Game

Nov 24, 2016 03:59 AM EST

NASA's Cassini probe is approaching its end game, but before the mission ends the spacecraft will perform a series of ring grazing orbits around Saturn.

The ring-grazing will provide an opportunity to Cassini to capture images and to study the planet's moons near the rings. For the said ring orbits, the spacecraft will approach the planet as near as possible. The orbits are expected to provide the best images to be taken yet of Saturn's moon Atlas, Pandora, Pan and Daphnis.

"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," Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, said in a statement. "In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gasses as we cross the ring plane, so in a sense, Cassini is also 'grazing' on the rings."

The ring-grazing will also become the closest study of Saturn's main rings (Ring A and Ring B and F). Rings A and B are the firsts of the planet's rings to be discovered and orbiting near these formations will give Cassini new data that has never been discovered before. Because of Cassini's would be proximity to the rings, the orbits will provide more detailed images of the rings compared to what the spacecraft had captured during its arrival in the region last 2004.

NASA says the details will be as high as 0.6 miles per pixel or about one kilometer. The series of photographs that Cassini will gather and collect during its ring-grazing orbits will be collated to create the highest resolution scan of Saturn's rings and their structures.

Another interesting part of the orbits is the potential of seeing moonlets near the A-ring. The moonlets are so small that there is still a number of them that have remained unseen despite Cassini's orbits in the region that started more than 10 years ago. The A-ring "propellers" will also be observed. These are the features in the rings that look like propellers thus their witty nicknames given by experts including "Earhart".

In order to complete its end game mission, Cassini will pass by the planet and its rings with the proximity of 56,000 miles (90 kilometers) above. But NASA says's there will be more exciting orbits and grazings planned after this. The spacecraft is expected to enter its 'Grand Finale' phase in April 2017, according to NASA.

Cassini has greatly contributed to the modern understanding of Saturn, its rings and its moon.


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