March 26, 2012
Cassini Mission’s Final Plans Laid Out
The Cassini space probe will be diving into a gap between Saturn's atmosphere and its innermost ring for the final part of its mission in 2016.
Linda Spilker, the mission's project scientist, outlined the details of the spacecraft's final leg recently at the 43rd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in the Woodlands, Texas.
Cassini's last set of orbits may bring scientists a new perspective, and help unlock more clues about Saturn's rings.
The spacecraft will carry out about 22 orbits and allow mission scientists to map the gravity field and magnetic field of Saturn.
The orbits, which will be tipped by tens of degrees away from horizontal around the equator, will allow Cassini to gather high-resolution data on Saturn's ring system.
Spilker said this move might shed light on whether the rings are relatively recent and formed by the breakup of a comet, or whether they date to the beginning of the Solar System.
"I think this will be a great phase of the mission," Dr Spilker told the LPSC meeting.
Once the mission is complete, ground controllers will command the spacecraft to drive into the planet's atmosphere, where it will be destroyed by high pressures.
Scientists plan to destroy the spacecraft on Saturn because they do not want any parts from it landing on the planet's moons, contaminating them.
During Cassini's run, it has helped uncover giant plumes of liquid water coming from an ocean beneath the moon Enceladus, and found weather systems on Titan.
The spacecraft was launched on October 15, 1997, and finally entered orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004.
Image Caption: Artist's concept of Cassini's Saturn Orbit Insertion. Credit: NASA