Cassini Poised To Begin Mission-Ending Dive

Cassini remained in orbit around Saturn, the only spacecraft to ever circle the planet. Three of Saturn's moons - Tethys, above, Enceladus, second left, and Mimas, seen from the Cassini spacecraft. Navigators will also be analyzing this information in the hopes of confirming that Cassini is precisely on track and ready to plunge into Saturn at the designated time, location, and altitude. Some of Saturn's moons are thought to be capable of harboring life. In particular, the spacecraft's ion and neutral mass spectrometer, which will be directly sampling the atmosphere's composition, will potentially offer insights into the giant planet's formation and evolution, according to NASA. "Almost like we've taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings". The huge outer "E" ring forms from the icy plumes that spray from the unexpectedly active Enceladus.

With INMS leading, Cassini will pierce Saturn's atmosphere, an area the spacecraft wasn't originally created to explore.

The grand finale everyone is talking about on the internet - no, not "Game of Thrones" - is the final moments of NASA's Cassini satellite orbiting Saturn for one last trip.

"It will fight, it will fight and it will fight", said Earl Maize, Cassini's project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La CaƱada Flintridge. A joint mission with the European Space Agency, a single rocket sent Cassini and Huygens on a meandering path through the Solar System.

The spacecraft has completed many moon flybys while observing seasonal changes on Saturn and Titan.


To mark the impending end of the mission, The Planetary Society released a video of its board member, "Star Trek" actor Robert Picardo, performing the "Le Cassini Opera," a humorous, musical farewell to the spacecraft.

JPL officials said they expect to lose contact with the spacecraft at about 4:55 a.m. Friday, one minute after it enters Saturn's atmosphere around 1,190 miles above the planet's cloud tops and its thrusters are no longer able to keep the ship stable. NASA has to abide by planetary protection rules, which state that if a planet has the potential to host life, then NASA must ensure that it is not contaminated. Going through the remaining data will take months and years of study, and the future missions Cassini will nearly inevitably inspire-to Titan, to Enceladus, or to other, undiscovered ocean worlds-will keep the orbiter's work relevant for decades to come.

The Cassini mission has provided some incredibly close-up and striking images of Saturn and its moons, with a camera that was five times the resolution of the one on Voyager (plus a radar to see through Titan's atmosphere).

The last signal and data from Cassini are expected at about 8 a.m. ET.

But Friday's dive will be like no other.


Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini discovered four of Saturn moons in the 17th century, although scientists have since identified more than 60.

Even among NASA missions, Cassini really is an overachiever.

The Cassini mission, which arrived at the Saturn system in 2004, has been extended twice and will finally use up the last of its rocket propellant this week. Why is the program ending now after 13 years? Cassini has provided some impossibly great photos of Saturn and its moons over the past decade, and it's gone above and beyond what was originally planned for it.

The craft was launched 20 years ago, and is now running out of fuel.



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