Grand Finale part 2: Cassini completes second epic dive into Saturn’s rings

Illustration of Cassini crossing the ring plane between Saturn and its innermost rings .Cassini has now completed its second dive into the rings of Saturn, with 20 left to go during the Grand Finale. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini’s “dance” with Saturn’s rings continues – the probe has now completed its second dive into the rings (orbit 272), specifically the gap between the innermost rings and Saturn itself. That leaves 20 more similar dives to go, as part of the Grand Finale phase of Cassini’s mission before the fateful end on Sept. 15. This is the closest that any spacecraft has ever come to Saturn, showing the rings and the planet itself in detail never seen before.

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Joint NASA/ESA mission proposed to search for life on Europa

Ocean world: new proposed mission would search for evidence of life in Europa’s subsurface water ocean. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

Europa is one of the most fascinating places in the Solar System, and is considered to be at or near the top of the list of worlds to search for possible evidence of life. Beneath its outer ice crust lies a deep and dark salty ocean, thought to be quite to Earth’s own oceans. Could that ocean be inhabited, even if just by microbes? Scientists want to know, and now a new proposal calls for a joint orbiter/lander mission between NASA and ESA (European Space Agency), to try to answer that question.

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Image Gallery: More closest-ever Cassini images from Saturn

Bluish-coloured storm at Saturn’s north pole, in the middle of the larger “hexagon” jet stream. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major

Since the previous post about Cassini’s first dive between Saturn and its rings on April 26, more images have become available. These are the closest-ever images taken of Saturn, showing the north polar region with a huge bluish-coloured storm at the centre of the massive “hexagon” jet stream and many other smaller storms and eddies in the atmosphere. As it dove through the gap, Cassini came within about 3,000 kilometres (1,900 miles) of Saturn’s cloud tops and within about 300 kilometres (200 miles) of the innermost visible edge of the rings. Cassini’s next dive through the gap is scheduled for May 2. See also Sophia Nasr’s (@Pharaoness) beautiful and haunting processed Cassini image taken a couple days later, on April 29.

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Cassini sends back spectacular new images from first-ever dive between Saturn and its rings

Three of the new raw images taken during Cassini’s first dive between Saturn and its innermost rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

After waiting with bated breath last night, everyone following Cassini’s first-ever dive through the gap between Saturn and its rings let out a collective sigh of relief – the spacecraft made it! This was the first time a probe had ever flown this close to Saturn’s atmosphere and inner rings, and while mission scientists were confident the probe would sail through unharmed, it wasn’t a 100% guarantee, either. But it did, and this is just the first of 22 such dives through this region as part of the “Grand Finale” phase of the mission.

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Cassini completes last flyby of Titan and first dive between Saturn and rings in ‘Grand Finale’

Raw image from Cassini’s last-ever flyby of Titan, taken on April 21, 2017. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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.

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