NASA spacecraft Cassini closes in on its lifespan at 4.3 billion miles

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made its closest swing by Saturn’s moon Dione Monday afternoon.

Scientists say that it came within 295 miles of the moon’s surface at 2:33 p.m. NASA reported that they are expecting new images from the flyby to start arriving in the next few days, according to Christian Science Monitor.

“We’ve been there four times before,” Todd Barber, the mission’s lead propulsion engineer, said Friday. “But each flyby helps unlock its mysteries.”

The Cassini spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004, 900 million miles away from Earth. It was conducting similar “gravity science investigations” on some of the planet’s 62 known moons. Then in 2011, the spacecraft got within 60 miles of the moon’s surface.

The cameras and spectrometers from today’s flyby will give NASA scientists a high-resolution picture of Dione’s north pole as well as provide data to give them a better understanding of the moon’s internal structure.

The Cassini cameras have a wide range of colors that it can capture helping to differentiate between materials and their textures, seeing their very subtle or even unseen natural colors.

A member of the Cassini science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Padadena, CA., Bonnie Buratti, said four of the previous flybys of Dione gave them “hints of active geologic processes,” that included evidence of transient atmosphere as well as ice volcanoes.

“But we’ve never found the smoking gun,” she said in a NASA statement. “The fifth flyby of Dione will be our last chance.”

After this last swing by Dione, the spacecraft is set up for several other missions in its final year including a repeated dive through the space between Saturn and its rings. When it is done with its lifespan in 25 months from now, its odometer will read over 4.3 billion miles.

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