United States Spacecraft To Take Slingshot Dive Inside Saturn's Rings

Posted April 23, 2017

Launched in 1997, Cassini reached Saturn in 2004 and has been exploring it from orbit ever s. The spacecraft on Wednesday will hurtle through the 1,200-mile-wide gap (1,900 kilometers) between Saturn's atmosphere and its rings, at a breakneck 70,000-plus miles per hour (113,000 kph).

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is all set for its final close encounter with Saturn's largest moon Titan, the U.S. space agency has said.

With its Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) visible light camera, Cassini will capture both regional and global mosaics of the hemisphere facing the spacecraft, focusing especially on mid-southern latitudes, including a basin named Hotei Regio, which appears to have had active ice volcanoes in its recent past. The Sun is behind the disk of Saturn from Cassini's perspective, so the rings are backlit in this view.

NASA's recently released photograph of Earth from Saturn puts all of that into perspective. "That's us. All of us, in Cassini's last view of Earth, a billion miles away".

She will discuss Cassini's history of discoveries and the mysteries that could yet be revealed, such as what really lies beneath the cloud tops and how long is a day on Saturn.

In their mission statement, NASA said: "Cassini's Grand Finale is about so much more than the spacecraft's final dive into Saturn".

A zoomed out view
A zoomed out

In the years that it has been studying the Saturnian system, the probe has flown by the haze-shrouded world on 126 occasions - each time getting a kick that bends its path towards a new region of interest.

Cassini's particle detectors will sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn's magnetic field. At this point, Cassini will beam its last batch of images.

The spacecraft will eventually destroy itself by diving into the planet's atmosphere in September 15. Unfortunately, these lakes and oceans aren't made of water but methane and ethane, which exist as gases on Earth, but are cooled into liquids on Titan.

One of Cassini's latest photos was of the home that it left 20 years ago. It doesn't want to shower contaminating wreckage onto these worlds that might harbor life.

The mission's scientists aim to know and examine Saturn's internal structure and the origins of the rings. NASA says Cassini will continue to send back data until the signal is lost, indicating the craft has met its ultimate fate.

"Most of us would be excited with any life", said Mary Voytek, an astrobiology senior scientist for NASA.

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