NASA(NEW YORK) — NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is beginning a series of “ring-grazing” orbits Wednesday to study Saturn’s rings and moons before it makes a final death plunge into the planet’s atmosphere next year.
Cassini is using the gravitational pull from Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to begin the tilted orbits.
Between Wednesday and April 22, Cassini will circle over and under the poles of Saturn once every seven days, for a total of 20 times. Engineers have been pumping up Cassini’s orbit around Saturn this year to increase its tilt for the mission.
NASA scientists are calling this phase of the mission “Cassini’s Ring-Grazing Orbits” because the spacecraft will essentially be “skimming” past the outer edge of the rings, where instruments will collect sample particles and gases as it crosses the ring plane, said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits will offer “unprecedented opportunities” to observe the collection of small moons that orbit the planet near the edges of Saturn’s rings, including Pandora, Atlas, Pan and Daphnis. The region on the outer edge of Saturn’s main rings has been unexplored until now.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and has been touring Saturn’s system since it arrived there in 2004 to study the planet and its rings and moons, producing ground-breaking research and stunning images of our solar system’s second-largest planet.
During the orbits, Cassini will pass as close as about 56,000 miles above Saturn’s cloud tops. In April, the spacecraft will begin its “grand finale” phase, in which it will pass as close as 1,012 miles above the clouds before it dives through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings into the planet’s atmosphere. After nearly 20 years in space, the mission is drawing to an end because the Cassini spacecraft is low on fuel.
NASA called Cassini’s suicidal plunge the mission’s “dramatic endgame.”
The spacecraft has made several discoveries on Saturn during its journey, including a global ocean within Enceladus, its sixth-largest moon, and seas of liquid methane on Titan.
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