NASA Imagines What Cassini's Noble Death Will Look Like
NASA is preparing to send its long-lived Cassini probe into the unexplored region between Saturn and its rings for a scientific grand finale before the spacecraft's suicidal plunge into the planet, space officials said on Tuesday.
For the past 13 years Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn, getting some spectacular views of Saturn's rings and moons and allowing scientists back on Earth to explore it from afar. 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". Using the gravity from one of Saturn's moons, NASA plans to slingshot Cassini into a new orbit between the planet and its rings.
"Cassini's grand finale is so much more than a final plunge", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.
Now, the end is near: September 15, 2017, at 10:44 UT is when Cassini will plunge into Saturn's dense atmosphere.
After a seven-year-long journey from Earth, the probe has been orbiting Saturn and its moons since 2004.
Cassini has been a decades-long odyssey for the scientists involved, and the probe's 3-minute final dive into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15 will be a bittersweet moment, the researchers said. Cassini promises to deliver awesome science as well as never-before-seen views of the ringed planet right up until the very end.
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Cassini was launched in 1997 and has discovered several remarkable revelations about Saturn. For starters, these orbits will bring Cassini closer to Saturn's rings than it has ever been, so it will be able to study their age and composition.
'Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life'.
The aim of the spacecraft was to give the closest, most detailed look at Saturn's rings and its moons.
"Even a piece of sand at that velocity could take out one of our instruments, or if in the wrong place, could cripple the spacecraft", Maize said. Cassini is the fourth mission to visit Saturn, a legacy that started with the Pioneer 11 flyby in 1979 and continued with Voyager 1 (1980) and Voyager 2 (1981). 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.
Since then, it has been exploring not only the planet, but also its moons: Enceladus and Titan.
During its time circling Saturn's system Cassini has gathered a wide array of data, as well as dropping the probe, Huygen, on Titan. In the final few minutes, Cassini will give us its last few bits of data before going out in a literal blaze of glory.
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