Nearing the end: Cassini prepares for spectacular ‘Grand Finale’ orbits at Saturn

Cassini is now entering the Grand Finale phase of the mission, which will end on Sept. 15, 2017, after the spacecraft plunges between the planet and rings 22 times. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn has been one of the most successful and awe-inspiring ever, studying the giant ringed planet and its many moons since 2004. But now, scientists are preparing for what everyone knew would come eventually – the end of Cassini’s excursions throughout the Saturn system. Yesterday, NASA held a news conference to celebrate what Cassini has accomplished and outline what will happen during the next few months, culminating with the end of the mission in September.

So what lies ahead for Cassini during these next months? Starting on April 26, the spacecraft will begin making a series of 22 “dives” through the gap between Saturn and its innermost ring. The gap is large, about 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) wide, so this should pose no major problems for Cassini. These dives are part of the Grand Finale phase of the mission, where Cassini will keep making tighter and tighter orbits around Saturn, within the rings, before finally plunging into the planet’s atmosphere on Sept. 15.

“No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we’ll attempt to boldly cross 22 times,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “What we learn from Cassini’s daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end.”

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