U.S. space agency plots final plan for Cassini spacecraft

by Fredrick Graves April 6, 2017, 2:42
U.S. space agency plots final plan for Cassini spacecraft

On Wednesday, April 26, the probe will begin its "Grand Finale", as it makes a succession of dives through the 1,500-mile-wide gap between Saturn's atmosphere and its rings. "This is truly discovery in action to the very end", Zurbuchen added. The Huygens lander separated on Christmas Day to dive into Saturn's atmosphere, leaving Cassini to study the Saturn system alone.

The spacecraft is making the dive in order to prevent it from crashing into Enceladus, a moon that many scientists believe could hold life beneath its icy crust in a liquid ocean.

After nearly 20 years in space, Cassini will enter the "beginning of the end".

Instead, after the craft's many passes through the planet's ring network, it will barrel head-first into the gas giant itself on 15 September, ultimately ending its epic odyssey. But the mission could meet a premature end if a ring particle hits Cassini. As it ticks off its terminal orbits during the next five months, the mission will rack up an impressive list of scientific achievements.

Project scientist Linda Spilker said no matter how long Cassini lasts, "the grand finale will be spectacular". We also have Cassini to thank for the closest photos we've ever seen of the planet and its natural satellites.

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The team is scheduling the commands for the craft to conduct its observations, called a sequence. That sequence is scheduled to be uploaded to the spacecraft on Tuesday, April 11th.

Cassini's grand finale will be to perform 22 weekly dives between Saturn and its rings - an intricate and risky mission. Cassini gave us close-up views of worlds only glimpsed during previous flybys, revealed seven new moons orbiting Saturn, ice geyser plumes on Enceladus, methane lakes on Titan, spokes in the rings of Saturn, and much more. Scientists are hoping to learn more about Saturn's internal structure throughout these crucial final months, along with insights into how its rings were formed. "We would never take a flagship mission on that kind of course in any other time in the mission except when its about to end". In mid-September, following a distant encounter with its moon, Titan, the spacecraft's path will be bent so that it dives into Saturn. Cassini will beam back its final images just a few hours prior to destruction, and its mass spectrometer will take data during its fiery atmospheric 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".

Astronomer Fred Watson, from the Australian astronomical observatory, said the Cassini mission was one of the most successful NASA missions ever. Now, nearly out of fuel, it is set to begin the last stage of one of NASA's most successful missions to date.

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