NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004, will soon end its mission. On Wednesday, April 24, the spacecraft will dive into the 1500-mile gap between Saturn and its rings for its “grand finale.”
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said that these orbital flights will help further our understanding of how large, gaseous planets form and evolve. “No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we’ll attempt to boldly cross 22 times,” he stated.
Cassini was launched from Earth 20 years ago and has been in orbit around Saturn for the past 13 years exploring its 53 moons. In 2010, NASA began planning this fateful end to Cassini’s mission, and planned it in such a way to help preserve Saturn’s moons for future exploration.
“The Grand Finale is a brand-new mission,” Spilker shared. “We’re going to a place that we’ve never been before…and I think some of the biggest discoveries may come from these final orbits.”
Some of the discoveries the team hopes to make include insights as to the planet’s internal structure and the origins of its rings as well as the first sample obtained from Saturn’s atmosphere and particles from its rings. Final commands and checks are being uploaded to the spacecraft’s programming on April 11.
Cassini will begin its “grand finale” on April 22 after its last pass by Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The gravity from the moon will hurl the spacecraft between the planet and its rings so that it can begin its final trek.
“Based on our best models, we expect the gap to be clear of particles large enough to damage the spacecraft,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “But we’re also being cautious by using our large antenna as a shield on the first pass, as we determine whether it’s safe to expose the science instruments to that environment on future passes.”
After its dives between Saturn and its rings, Cassini will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere and will send NASA data of the atmosphere’s composition until its signal is lost.
“I think that once the signal is lost, it would mean the heartbeat of Cassini is gone,” said Spilker. “I think there will be a tremendous cheer and applause for the completion of an absolutely incredible mission…we will rejoice at being part of such a wonderful mission.”
By Catherine Petretti’18, Guest Writer