Science

Watch How a Beloved Spacecraft Will Die in Saturn's Atmosphere

Watch How a Beloved Spacecraft Will Die in Saturn's Atmosphereā€¯

On its final mission, threading past hazardous cosmic dust and into hurricanes 1.2bn kilometers away, the Cassini spacecraft will end its 20-year journey with humanity's closest ever look at what goes on in Saturn's rings and within its clouds.

According to NASA, the spacecraft will follow a series of orbits that bring it between Saturn and its rings until finally it will plunge into the planet's atmosphere and die.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been hanging out in space for two decades, with well over a decade of that time spent exploring the space around Saturn, taking scientific readings, and teaching humanity more about the ringed planet than we had ever known before.

NASA is hoping Cassini will survive long enough for 22 dives inside the rings, revealing details about the their age and composition.

"Cassini's grand finale is so much more than a final plunge", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.

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And, then, in mid-September, Cassini will make its final plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, burning up in the process, but being ensconced forever in our hearts.

Roughly five months later, NASA will drive Cassini toward Saturn's surface and it is expected to disintegrate in the planet's toxic atmosphere.

"Cassini's own discoveries were its demise", said Earl Maize, the mission's project manager.

Beyond that, Cassini will spend its remaining time studying Saturn itself, including its atmosphere and magnetic fields.

Cassini was launched in 1997 and has discovered several remarkable revelations about Saturn. These Grand Finale orbits will take Cassini from a periapsis (closest approach) of 39,000 miles from Saturn's center out to an apoapsis of 87,000 miles, past the outermost edge of the F-ring. Astronomers predict that the gap between Saturn and its rings will be clear of large particles that can potentially damage the spacecraft.

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On another moon, Titan, Cassini found rivers of liquid methane and yet more organic chemicals, which Green said raised the question of "a different potential life environment" that does not require water or a DNA-based system.

Even on the final dive into the atmosphere, the spacecraft will continue to return data as it fights to keep its antenna pointing in the right direction. It was the first, and as far only landing to take place in the outer solar system.

Astronomer Fred Watson, from the Australian astronomical observatory, said the Cassini mission was one of the most successful NASA missions ever.

Cassini will fly by Titan on April 22 and the moon's gravity will shrink Cassini's orbit down to the final rotations.

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