Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004, will make the first in a series of dives through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission’s grand finale.
Throughout its time at Saturn, it has made many extraordinary discoveries, as well as a global ocean which revealed signs of hydrothermal activity inside the icy moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on its moon Titan.
20 years later after launching from Earth, and 13 years after orbiting the ringed planet, it is now running low on fuel. In 2010, NASA resolved to terminate the mission with a decisive dive into Saturn this year to secure and preserve the planet’s moons for exploration, particularly the possibly habitable Enceladus.
Cassini engineers created a flight plan which will exploit the scientific value of sending the spacecraft to its historic dive into the planet on 15th September. As it gets off its terminal orbits in the next 5 months, the mission will score a remarkable catalogue of scientific achievements.
The mission team anticipates acquiring powerful insights into the planet’s internal structure and the origins of the rings, find the very first sampling of Saturn’s atmosphere and particles dropping from the main rings, and obtain the closest-ever views of Saturn’s inner rings and clouds. The team is now finalizing the last checks on the list of commands the robotic probe will follow to execute its science observations, called a sequence, as it starts the finale. The sequence is set to be uploaded to the spacecraft on Tuesday, 11th April.
Cassini will move to its ultimate orbits, with a final close flyby of Saturn’s giant moon Titan, on Saturday, 22nd April. Titan’s gravity will bend Cassini’s flight path. Cassini’s orbit then will decrease so that instead of making its closest approach to Saturn just outside the rings, it will begin passing between the planet and the inner edge of its rings.