QR.bizNewsCassini's explosive end to a 20-year mission

Cassini's explosive end to a 20-year mission

The "Grand Finale" will begin when Titan's gravity hurls the spacecraft close to Saturn's atmosphere, ending the probe's series of ring-grazing orbits and causing Cassini to dive through a gap in the rings.

"What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve", NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement.

Using expertise gained over the mission's many years, Cassini engineers designed a flight plan that will maximize the scientific value of sending the spacecraft toward its fateful plunge. It would also produce some exciting science, said Linda Spilker, the mission's project scientist: "I would not be surprised if some of the discoveries will be the best we've obtained".

Mission managers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) call Cassini's final maneuvers the "Grand Finale".

On September 15, after 22 orbits between the planet and its rings, Cassini will plunge into Saturn's upper atmosphere of clouds, where it will break apart.

If it can make all the crossings, Cassini will then dive straight into the planet.

Cassini has had quite the journey and bidding farewell to the craft is probably going to be one big sob fest for scientists and enthusiasts alike. This animated video tells the story of Cassini's final, daring assignment and looks back at what the mission has accomplished.

An artist's conception of Cassini during its Grand Finale Orbits. "We'll end up with no gas in the tank, but at the same time, this is a very serious constraint".

For example, watch the arrival at Saturn on July 1st, 2004, or see Cassini launch the Huygens probe and follow it to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. As it descends, it will struggle to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth to deliver atmospheric data about the planet's skies and in a matter of minutes, it will burn to a crisp and become one with Saturn.

Expect some dazzling images of Saturnian cloudtops as well, as the spacecraft gets up close and personal to the planet like never before.

The first of Cassini's dives will take place on April 26. Five months later, on September 15, Cassini will spectacularly burn up in Saturn's crushing atmosphere. But if a ring particle hits Cassini, it could bring the mission to an premature end because the spacecraft will be traveling at more than 70,000 miles per hour [112,654 kph].

Unlike its predecessors, though, Cassini entered orbit around Saturn, enabling scientists to study longterm changes on the planet.

Over the last 13 years, the spacecraft found icy plumes erupting from Enceladus and methane lakes on Titan, two of Saturn's moons.

Saturn. Image Aphelleon  Shutterstock

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