The Cassini spacecraft has begun its dance with death as it orbits near Saturn.
It’s been 12 years since NASA’s Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn, and now the spacecraft has begun its long, slow dance to its inevitable death. Cassini has been put on a course to graze Saturn’s rings in the closest ever contact with the planet, before it ends its life in 2017.
Cassini was launched all the way back in 1997, and has provided us with incredible views of Saturn and the 62 moons that orbit it, not to mention the amazing views of its rings. Starting Nov. 30, Cassini will go to the edge of Saturn’s outer rings for the first of what will be 20 passes in the next six months, before headed to its end by plunging into the gas giant itself, according to a NASA statement.
During its orbits, Cassini will come as close as 56,000 miles from the cloud tops of Saturn, and in April 2017, the spacecraft will start the Grand Finale phase.
“We’re calling this phase of the mission Cassini’s Ring-Grazing Orbits, because we’ll be skimming past the outer edge of the rings,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ringplane, so in a sense Cassini is also ‘grazing’ on the rings.”
“Even though we’re flying closer to the F ring than we ever have, we’ll still be more than 4,850 miles (7,800 kilometers) distant. There’s very little concern over dust hazard at that range,” added Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.
The statement notes: “During its grand finale, Cassini will pass as close as 1,012 miles (1,628 kilometers) above the clouds as it dives repeatedly through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings, before making its mission-ending plunge into the planet’s atmosphere on Sept. 15. But before the spacecraft can leap over the rings to begin its finale, some preparatory work remains. To begin with, Cassini is scheduled to perform a brief burn of its main engine during the first super-close approach to the rings on Dec. 4. This maneuver is important for fine-tuning the orbit and setting the correct course to enable the remainder of the mission.”