As Cassini’s “Grand Finale” journey continues, the spacecraft has completed its eighth dive past the innermost rings of Saturn (known as a ring crossing), and there are now just under 100 days left until it plunges into the giant planet’s atmosphere, never to come back. Although time may be running out, Cassini continues to devour every drop of science data that it can, which builds upon other data that has transformed our view of the Saturnian system – a complex array of worlds like a miniature Solar System. This includes, of course, more fantastic images of Saturn and its rings and moons. The detail seen in the rings is nothing short of staggering.
The latest ring crossing is part of the eighth orbit during the Grand Finale phase of the mission, which consists of 22 orbits in total. Each orbit takes Cassini directly “through” the rings, passing through the gap between the innermost rings and the planet itself. This is the first time that any spacecraft has ever done this, providing views never seen before. The final orbit however will end with Cassini plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it will meet its fiery fate. This is done on purpose – the spacecraft will have run out of fuel by then and mission scientists do not want it possibly colliding with any of Saturn’s moons where it could potentially contaminate them with any earthly microbes which may still be alive onboard. So the option was chosen to let Cassini burn up in the atmosphere – a spectacular end to a spectacular mission.
Read the rest of my article on AmericaSpace.