NASA to End Cassini's Run With Plunge Into Saturn

NASA Saturn Mission News Conference Live Stream: Cassini 'Grand Finale' Preview

Cassini will continue to send data as it plunges to Saturn before burning up and crashing into the planet's surface.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004, is about to begin the final chapter of its remarkable story this month. But in some ways, the mission's final phase that kicks off later this month could prove even more fruitful, with the deep-space probe making a series of daring passes through the gap between Saturn and its rings, where scientists expect it to make some of its most extraordinary discoveries before burning up in the atmosphere.

Cassini also focused on a giant hexagonal polar vortex on Saturn, which spins around the north pole at speeds of 320 kilometres per hour, and has become known as the hexagon.

"This planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists", Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, said. If the rings are more massive than expected, she said, they could be ancient, possibly as old as the planet itself.

"We don't know exactly where that D-ring ends ... so, to be on the safe side, we want to protect the spacecraft's instrumentation from these particles", Spilker said. There's also a chance that Cassini could grab the first ever photograph of one of the individual rocks that make up the rings. Now Cassini will finally take a leap into some of the only territory it has yet to explore: the gap between Saturn and its rings. But the mission could meet a premature end if a ring particle hits Cassini. NASA plans to use the last of Cassini's fuel to keep the antenna pointed toward Earth so it can transmit data for as long as possible.

NASA says it hopes to gain new insights about Saturn's interior and about the rings' origins.

Cassini's Grand Finale is occurring this year because the spacecraft has been so active and so prolific, Maize added. "Ultimately, Cassini's discoveries (caused) its demise".

An artist's impression of Cassini breaking up in Saturn's atmosphere. Microorganisms still alive on Cassini could contaminate the potential life forms on Titan or Enceladus.

Cassini also discovered Enceladus' fantastic water plumes, which in turn helped reveal that the satellite hosts an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. "Flying this close to the rings of a planet, that's a once in a lifetime experience for a scientist". In its final research campaign, the spacecraft will gather information that should reveal Saturn's inner structure. "Hugs, tears - the Kleenex box will be passed around - but we will rejoice at being part of such a wonderful mission".

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