Cassini’s Grand Finale: It Will Crash Into Saturn’s Atmosphere in September 2017

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft grand finale has started! It made its final close approach to Saturn’s moon Titan on April 22 at an altitude of around 979 kilometers, and is now making its last set of 22 orbits around the planet, at the conclusion of which it will crash into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Cassini spacecraft captured this unprocessed image of Titan, Saturn’s moon, during its final flyby on April 2017. Photo credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

For the final (127th) time, Cassini was flying near Titan. The historic event happened last Friday, April 22, at 2:08 a.m, with the spacecraft situated within around 979 kilometers from the surface of Saturn’s moon.

So, we now have the latest images of that region of the universe. Shortly after the close flyby, the spacecraft sent the pictures together with relevant data to Earth. The scientists behind the research will be analysing this data which includes new images of Titan’s hydrocarbon water bodies (from seas to lakes) located at its northern pole. The Cassini radar team also looks forward to investigating the depths and compositions of the moon’s small lakes, the first and last time they will be able to do so.

“Cassini’s up-close exploration of Titan is now behind us, but the rich volume of data the spacecraft has collected will fuel scientific study for decades to come,” says Linda Spilker, one of NASA’s scientists working on the Cassini mission.

Titans gravity distorted the path of Cassini during the flyby, thus re-drawing the latter’s orbit. This gravitational effect has deviated Cassini from outside Saturn’s main rings to a journey of a further (and last) 22 orbits between the rings and Saturn—a place where no human has been before. This series of 22 dives begins today, April 26. The close approach also accounts for the increased velocity (860.5 meters per second) of the spacecraft.

Cassini is now bound to its death: currently running low on fuel, it will eventually move into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15, where it will crash and die.

“With this flyby we’re committed to the Grand Finale,” says Cassini’s project manager, Earl Maize. “The spacecraft is now on a ballistic path, so that even if we were to forgo future small course adjustments using thrusters, we would still enter Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15 no matter what.”

Cassini scientists calculated the dramatic death of the spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, with the aim of protecting Saturn’s moons (Titan and Enceladus) from contamination from any biological material originating from Earth. Also, this conscious decision to crash Cassini into Saturn will shield the moons from any possible collision from the probe.

But, before Cassini dies, it will be relaying more information to us about the ringed planet: as it approaches Saturn up close, it will provide us with further observations. Radio contact from the probe will be made at 3:05 a.m. EDT, tomorrow, April 27.

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