06 April, 2017
The NASA spacecraft, which has spent the last 13 years orbiting Saturn and shining new light on both that planet and its moons, is as it spins ever closer to its end. Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, said "what we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve".
NASA is hoping Cassini spacecraft will survive long enough for 22 dives inside the rings, revealing details about the their age and composition.
"The planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists", says Linda Spilker (NASA-JPL) in a recent press release. You can even ride along with Cassini during its final 20 orbits, in which it zips between Saturn and its rings - a place no spacecraft has explored before.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft pinged the surface of Titan with microwaves, finding that some channels are deep, steep-sided canyons filled with liquid hydrocarbons.
And the expertise gained from the probe's orbit of Saturn has also helped engineers devise a flight path that will make the most of its final moments.
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Beyond that, Cassini will spend its remaining time studying Saturn itself, including its atmosphere and magnetic fields.
But the beginning of the end for Cassini is, in many ways, like a whole new mission.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and has discovered several remarkable revelations about Saturn. That includes collecting data that could hint at Saturn's internal structure and the origins of its rings and the first-ever sample of Saturn's atmosphere. Cassini's wanderings there will be its final act. Now, running low on fuel, it's preparing for the descent through the 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometer)-wide gap between the planet and its rings. Saturn's unique environment has acted like a natural laboratory, demonstrating how moons are formed and destroyed - findings that can be scaled up to better understand how planets formed around the sun and, perhaps, around other stars, scientists have said. Cassini will beam back its final images just a few hours prior to destruction, and its mass spectrometer will take data during its fiery atmospheric plunge. Eventually, Maize said, it will lose contact, break up and vaporise.
Cassini also discovered Enceladus' incredible water plumes, which in turn helped reveal that the satellite hosts an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. Some of these moons-like Enceladus with its underground water oceans and Titan with its methane lakes and rivers-could potentially be home to primitive extraterrestrial life, and we can't risk contaminating them with the microbes on Cassini.