NASA's Cassini spacecraft is taking a deep dive near the planet, a very, very deep dive that will ultimately kill the spacecraft.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is veering closer and closer to Saturn, and soon it will meet its end more than 12 years since arriving at the planet and 20 years since it was launched back in 1997. But before it dies, it will be taking an amazing skim of Saturn’s rings.
Cassini has begun its dance with death, having been placed in a fatal orbit that will end with its headed full force into Saturn itself sometime in 2017. Until then, NASA scientists have put it on course to graze Saturn’s rings in its closest ever contact with the gas giant, according to a NASA statement.
Beginning today, Nov. 30, Cassini will go to the edge of the outer rings of Saturn in the first of 20 passes over the next six months before its final descent into Saturn itself. Cassini will come as close as 56,000 from Saturn’s cloud tops, and the Grand Finale phase begins in April 2017.
“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,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.