Two decades after its launch NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will be beginning the final phase in its mission during which it will be attempting 22 dives through Saturn and the inner edge of its innermost ring.
The final phase will be particularly important as no other spacecraft has attempted such dives and it will reveal to us details about Saturn that we have never been able to collect till date. The dives will be carried out from April to September and at the end of these dives, Cassini will be plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere collecting and relaying as much data as possible before it burns up into the atmosphere of the planet.
During the final orbits, Cassini will be collecting information about Saturn’s gravity, magnetic field, the evolution of the planet and also about the planet’s orbital arrangement and rotational movement. It will be the first time when NASA would be able to access the ultra-zoomed in pictures of Saturn’s rings and clouds.
While the mission’s last phase may be seen as an end for Cassini, it is certainly not an end for the team behind the mission as the last few weeks of the spacecraft will offer them the chance to design a flight plan that will maximize the scientific value of sending the spacecraft toward its fateful plunge into the planet on September 15. As it ticks off its terminal orbits during the next five months, the mission will rack up an impressive list of scientific achievements.
During these final weeks of the spacecraft, the mission team is hopeful that they will garner some of the most powerful insights into the planet’s internal structure and the origins of the rings, obtain the first-ever sampling of Saturn’s atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings, and capture the closest-ever views of Saturn’s clouds and inner rings. The team currently is making final checks on the list of commands the robotic probe will follow to carry out its science observations, called a sequence, as it begins the finale. That sequence is scheduled to be uploaded to the spacecraft on Tuesday, April 11.
Cassini will transition to its grand finale orbits, with a last close flyby of Saturn’s giant moon Titan, on Saturday, April 22. As it has many times over the course of the mission, Titan’s gravity will bend Cassini’s flight path. Cassini’s orbit then will shrink so that instead of making its closest approach to Saturn just outside the rings, it will begin passing between the planet and the inner edge of its rings.