Grand Finale part 3: Cassini completes third ring dive, sees bright clouds on Titan

Two versions of the image of Titan’s clouds, taken on May 7, 2017. The first is with stronger enhancement, and the second is with softer enhancement. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

NASA’s Cassini probe has now survived its third dive into Saturn’s rings, specifically the gap between the innermost rings and the planet itself. This is just the latest in a series of 22 such planned dives for the Grand Finale phase, before the mission ends on Sept. 15, 2017. This time, as well as obtaining more close-up views of the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere again, Cassini took a look at Saturn’s largest moon Titan from a distance, and saw some of the longest and brightest clouds in the hazy atmosphere that it has seen in the entire mission. Even though Cassini won’t be making any more close flybys of Titan, these new views are fantastic.

This latest ring dive was similar to the first two, where Cassini plunges through the gap separating Saturn and its innermost rings. It was a bit uncertain before just how risky this might be, since even small ring particles hitting the spacecraft could cause significant damage. As the first two dives showed, however, that risk seems to be minimal, with a much lesser amount of rings particles than previously thought. In fact, the gap is almost completely empty, and the largest particles encountered so far are no more than dust. Cassini crossed Saturn’s ring plane at 0613 GMT (2:13 a.m. EDT) on Tuesday, May 9, passing about 2,710 kilometres (1,680 miles) from Saturn’s cloud tops.

As noted earlier by Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, “The region between the rings and Saturn is ‘the big empty,’ apparently. Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.”

Read the rest of my article on AmericaSpace.

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