NASA reveals Cassini’s Grand Finale

Preparations begin 10 years after the probe entered Saturn’s orbit

Credit: NASA

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has travelled over 3 billion km since entering Saturn's orbit.

A decade ago, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft inserted itself into orbit around Saturn. Ever since, the probe has been circling the ringed world, sending back amazing views of the planet and its moons.

Now Cassini is preparing for its final mission, fittingly named the Grand Finale. The title was chosen by a panel of team members on the Cassini programme from a list of suggestions sent in by over 2000 fans of the mission.

During late 2016, the probe will use its penultimate pass of Titan to alter its orbit to 10,000km beyond Saturn’s outer most F-ring before passing high over the planet’s north pole. The path will be close enough to Enceladus to allow the probe to examine the water-rich geysers that erupt high off the moon’s surface.

After 20 orbits on this trajectory, Cassini will once more use a fly-by of Titan to alter its orbit, jumping over the rings in single leap to pass between their inner most edge and the planet’s surface.

Only 3,800km separates the innermost D ring and Saturn’s cloud tops and Cassini will attempt to pass through this opening 23 times.

Final orbits

These final orbits of the planet will help answer some of the biggest questions astronomers have about Saturn as passing close by to the surface will make it possible to observe the planet without interference from the rings. The probe will give detailed measurements of the magnetic field, probing deep into the planet to finally answer the mystery of how fast the planet’s interior is rotating.

The probe will also be able to separate the gravitational effects of the planet and its rings. This will give scientists a way to finally calculate the mass of the rings, hopefully leading to new insights into how they formed, and how long they have been there.

When all of the spacecraft’s orbits are completed in September 2017, a final nudge from Titan will cause Cassini to fall into Saturn’s atmosphere, putting an end to this great mission.


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