As NASA just pointed out, the Cassini spacecraft is entering its last month of functionality as it is taking the final five passes part of its Grand Finale mission. This is set to have a fiery end in September.
Cassini has been studying the great ringed planet for 13 years now, but less than a month from now, on September 15, it is set to take one last final dive that will send it plummeting into Saturn.
The Final Five Passes, the Last and Latest New Data
As the concluding stage of its Grand Finale mission, the Cassini spacecraft began taking a series of ultra-close and daring passes of Saturn. The probe’s current orbit is taking it high over the planets of the poles and then through the gap between the upper atmosphere of Saturn and its innermost ring. These are all very close passes, which could all lead to an abrupt end to the mission.
On Monday, August 14, Cassini took its closest yet flyby of Saturn, one of the final five passes. It came within 1,000 miles of the cloud tops of the planet. Getting closer will mean a reduction of the probe’s viewing range. This will now see just some 16 miles across, some 100 times less than at any other point before the Grand Finale.
However, as the scientists point out, getting closer also means being able to take direct atmospheric measurements.
“Cassini will become the first Saturn atmospheric probe. It’s long been a goal in planetary exploration to send a dedicated probe into the atmosphere of Saturn, and we’re laying the groundwork for future exploration with this first foray,” states Linda Spiker, a Cassini project scientist at the JPL.
Cassini has already discovered and delivered a vast amount of data about Saturn and also some of its moons, but this latest set of data will be the most detailed yet. The probe also got quite up close and personal with Titan, one of the planet’s massive moons. This will also be helping it during its final dive, as the moon’s gravity will help slow down the probe.
This maneuver is set for September 11, just 4 days before Cassini will be plunging into Saturn.
Image Source: JPL/NASA