Cassini's 'GRAND FINALE': NASA prepares to plunge long-serving spaceship into SATURN

Cassini's 'GRAND FINALE': NASA prepares to plunge long-serving spaceship into SATURN”

The first of these 22 dives through the 1,500 mile wide (2,400 km) gap between the planet and its rings will take place on April 26, following a final close flyby of Saturn's giant moon Titan.

This slingshot maneuver is not the end of the Grand Finale - Cassini is expected to complete 22 of these extremely close orbits before it's finally pulled down into Saturn's atmosphere.

The 20-year-old Cassini spacecraft has been investigating the ringed planet for 13 years, thereby providing scientists with numerous insights into Saturn's structure and evolution.

"The planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists", says Linda Spilker (NASA-JPL) in a recent press release. Now, the aging spacecraft has almost depleted the fuel reserves it uses for navigation and corrections, and so NASA is ending the mission the best way it knows how: By making the craft dive repeatedly through the space between Saturn and its own rings until the time comes to crash Cassini right into the planet itself.

This illustration shows Cassini above Saturn's northern hemisphere prior to one of its 22 Grand Finale dives.

Cassini is nearing its final days - and final orbits.

Since 2004, the probe has discovered several new moons.

According to NASA, the researchers hope to collect the first-ever samples of Saturn's atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings. After that, the Cassini will take a plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, explode and die.

On another moon, Titan, Cassini found rivers of liquid methane and yet more organic chemicals, which Green said raised the question of "a different potential life environment" that does not require water or a DNA-based system. It'll be a struggle to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth, but if it can do that final task, it'll send back data on Saturn's atmosphere before it's destroyed. That will push it onto precisely the right path to thread the needle between the giant planet and its closest ring, the wispy D ring, whose innermost edge lies only 1,240 miles from Saturn's atmosphere.

On Tuesday scientists announced the plan for Cassini. "Ultimately, Cassini's discoveries (caused) its demise".

Cassini had also made its mark in the planning for other missions, added Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. The agency also pondered crashing the craft into one of the planet's 62 moons, but ultimately decided not to contaminate them for possible future missions. Just to start with, he said, the upcoming Europa Clipper mission (scheduled for launch in the 2020s) would use an approach similar to that which Cassini used to study Titan.

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