Cassini's dance on Saturn's rings before it aims for the planet

Cassini Saturn Mission

On Saturday, NASA will fling the probe around Saturn's largest moon, Titan, sending it on a "Grand Finale" orbit that will zip it between the planet and its icy rings for the first time.

Between April and September 2017, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will undertake a daring set of orbits that is, in many ways, like a whole new mission.

Cassini will pass through the rings every week and will finally dive into Saturn on 15th September, 10:45 GMT.

During the spacecraft's penultimate ring pass April 12, it snapped new images of Atlas, a 30-kilometer-wide moon that sits outside Saturn's bright outer ring, the A ring. Although far too small to be visible in the image, the part of Earth facing Cassini at the time was the southern Atlantic Ocean. The Sun is behind the disk of Saturn from Cassini's perspective, so the rings are backlit in this view. Input from Cassini and the Huygens lander shows Saturn's moon Titan to have some Earth-like processes, such as clouds, rain, sand dunes, volcanoes, and rivers and lakes of methane and ethane.

"We want to protect all of the science instruments on the body of the spacecraft", Stupik said. Cassini's fuel tank is practically empty, so with little left to lose, NASA has opted for a risky, but science-rich grand finale.

Dr Jonathan Lunine, director of the Cornell Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science in NY, who has worked on many aspects of the Cassini mission, said: " Cassini is the quintessential "discovery machine", unearthing surprises everywhere it has looked in the Saturn system.

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Cassini uncovered the hydrogen during its final close flyby of Enceladus in 2015, when it dove deeper than ever through its plumes of vapor and particles.

"Imagine the pictures we're going to get back of Saturn's rings", said project scientist Linda Spilker.

One reason scientists want to make sure Cassini is incinerated at the end of its journey is to ensure that any of its earthborn microbes do not contaminate the biotic or prebiotic worlds out there.

During the dives, Cassini will measure how much ice and other materials are in the rings and determine their chemical composition.

An accurate mass reading could help scientists solve a long-standing puzzle: How old are the rings, and where did they come from?

"This is truly an exciting time for us to probe those [ocean worlds]", Green said.

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