Cassini Enters its Final Week Before its Fatal Plunge into Saturn

Saturday, 09 September 2017 - 4:58PM
Space
Solar System
NASA
Saturday, 09 September 2017 - 4:58PM
Cassini Enters its Final Week Before its Fatal Plunge into Saturn
NASA
Cassini's final week is about to begin, with the the famous NASA probe ending its 20 year mission on Friday, September 15, by plunging into Saturn's gaseous atmosphere and sending some final data about the ringed planet back to Earth. The probe will then break apart in a distant blaze of glory. 

The Cassini probe first entered Saturn's orbit in 2004, after a seven year trip through the solar system. Since then, it's made exactly 294 orbits around the gas giant, including countless flybys (no, not really, NASA's counted them all) of Saturn's moons, including 127 looks at the possibly inhabitable Titan with one more planned, and 23 looks at the icy moon Enceladus, which has more than enough ice and oceans for potential alien life. 

As of this writing, NASA announced that the probe just completed its final crossing between Saturn and its rings, with these being referred to as the "Grand Finale" orbits.



To get ready for its "retirement," in the Blade Runner sense of the word, Cassini is gradually moving closer to Saturn's atmosphere - according to project scientist Linda Spilker, this is "like dipping our toe in Saturn's atmosphere, in preparation for the final plunge." It will also give the probe a chance to more closely analyze Saturn's atmospheric properties before its dive.

If you're curious to track Cassini, NASA has lots of resources available, including a real time tracker, so you can geek out alongside NASA scientists as the long mission comes to a close. And if you want some more visuals, NASA also put together an infographic showing what exactly Cassini's been up to this whole time:



Still, this is far from the end of NASA's interest in Saturn. Once Cassini is gone, NASA will keep looking into other ways to explore the planet - one potential way includes sending a quadcopter drone to explore Titan, which has long been one of the most interesting bodies in the solar system because of its potential to support life (including our own lives, with some minor terraforming in the far future). 

Other than that, NASA is actually open to ideas about how else to explore the deeper corners of our solar system, so it remains to be seen what else they'll attempt. But it means we'll no longer be getting regular, amazing photos of Saturn's rings for some time to come. 

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