NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has now officially entered the last phase of its mission – the “Grand Finale,” with the last-ever close flyby of Titan and the first of 22 final orbits which will take the spacecraft closer to Saturn than ever before, passing between the inner rings and the planet itself. Cassini has today just completed the first of these passes (with results pending for a few hours as of this writing), which will culminate on Sept. 15 with the spacecraft plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere to meet its fiery end. It will be a sad but incredible ending to an incredible mission.
On April 21, Cassini made its final close flyby of Titan at 11:08 p.m. PDT (2:08 a.m. EDT on April 22), passing the moon at an altitude of about 979 kilometres (608 miles) above the surface. This was the last opportunity for Cassini to look at Titan’s methane/ethane lakes and seas; the final set of radar images will cover areas already seen by the imaging cameras, but not by radar. These hydrocarbon lakes and seas are found primarily near Titan’s north pole, with fewer at the south pole. The mid-latitudes near the equator are dominated by vast stretches of dark sand dunes, also composed of organic material like tholins.
“Cassini’s up-close exploration of Titan is now behind us, but the rich volume of data the spacecraft has collected will fuel scientific study for decades to come,” said Linda Spilker, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
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