Cassini's explosive end to a 20-year mission

This slingshot maneuver is not the end of the Grand Finale - Cassini is expected to complete 22 of these extremely close orbits before it's finally pulled down into Saturn's atmosphere.

"What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. But we're also being cautious by using our large antenna as a shield on the first pass, as we determine whether it's safe to expose the science instruments to that environment on future passes", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.

In its 13-year sojourn at Saturn, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has methodically studied practically every cloud and bit of orbiting rock the planet has to offer. The Huygens lander separated on Christmas Day to dive into Saturn's atmosphere, leaving Cassini to study the Saturn system alone.

Before it retires, Cassini will pass near Saturn and give us the closest look yet at what goes on in Saturn's rings.

In some ways, the final orbits mark a whole new mission, taking Cassini to new territory.

The exact origin of the rings of Saturn has perplexed astronomers for centuries but, using the latest technology, the pieces of the puzzle are gradually being put together by researchers unattached to the Cassini mission. But the mission could meet a premature end if a ring particle hits Cassini.

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Cassini was launched in 1997 and has discovered several remarkable revelations about Saturn.

For example, Cassini spotted liquid-hydrocarbon seas on Titan, making the moon the only place beyond Earth known to harbor bodies of stable liquid on its surface.

'Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life'. We also have Cassini to thank for the closest photos we've ever seen of the planet and its natural satellites. But even as it crashes into Saturn, Cassini will be sending data in real-time until it loses contact with the Earth. Now, running low on fuel, it's preparing for the descent through the 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometer)-wide gap between the planet and its rings.

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

On Tuesday scientists announced the plan for Cassini. Some of these moons-like Enceladus with its underground water oceans and Titan with its methane lakes and rivers-could potentially be home to primitive extraterrestrial life, and we can't risk contaminating them with the microbes on Cassini. Well, while there's been talk of dedicated missions to Titan or Enceladus, these are at best a decade or more away.

  • Toni Ryan