We all knew this day was coming: 13 years since it entered orbit around Saturn, NASA’s Cassini mission has begun final preparations for its grand finale – a spectacular series of dives which will culminate with the probe making one last plunge and crashing onto the planet’s surface.
On Tuesday, April 11, mission control personnel will upload Cassini’s final series of instructions (also called a sequence), the US space agency explained in a statement. That sequence will direct the probe to multiple several dives through the 1,500 mile (2,400 km) wide gap separating Saturn and its rings – something that has never been attempted before.
“No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we’ll attempt to boldly cross 22 times,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “What we learn from Cassini’s daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end.”
Cassini will transition into its final orbits on Saturday, April 22, and will continue to collect data along its journey past Saturn’s moon Titan, between the planet’s rings and into the atmosphere of the ringed world, for as long as possible before finally losing contact and meeting its end.
“This planned conclusion for Cassini’s journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission’s scientists,” noted Linda Spilker, a project scientist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life.”
Video shows how the spacecraft will spend its final moments
Over the more than two decades since it left Earth, Cassini has become a bit of a rock star among space science enthusiasts, having facilitated the publication of more than 3,000 papers, according to Gizmodo. Among the probe’s major discoveries were Titan’s liquid methane seas and a global ocean on Saturn’s moon Enceladus that showed evidence of hydrothermal activity.
Cassini’s legacy featured in a new video created and posted to YouTube by JPL – a 3.5-minute video that also shows a dramatization of what the spacecraft’s final moments will look like as it disappears into Saturn’s atmosphere, burning up on its way towards the planet’s surface, added Gizmodo. It’s journey will officially come to an end on September 15, according to NASA.
Before it goes, though, the spacecraft will be used to obtain the first-ever samples of Saturn’s atmosphere and particles from the main rings, and scientists hope that it will be able to capture the closest-ever views of the planet’s clouds and inner rings, the agency added.
“Cassini’s grand finale is so much more than a final plunge. It’s a thrilling final chapter for our intrepid spacecraft, and so scientifically rich that it was the clear and obvious choice for how to end the mission,” Spilker said. “While we’ll all be sad to see it go,” Gizmodo added, “at least it’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
Image credit: NASA-JPL Caltech