Dr. Lynda Spilker talked about Going out in a Blaze of Glory: Cassini Science Highlights and the Grand Finale at our Paul Sykes Memorial Lecture back in January of this year. More remarkable discovers from Cassini are expected when it repeatedly dives between the innermost ring and the top of Saturn’s atmosphere during its final six months starting this week. The first of the spaceship’s 22 deep, daring dives is scheduled for April 26 at 2:00am PDT.
When Cassini passed close by Titan on April 22, the moon’s gravity pulled strongly on the spacecraft. The flyby gave Cassini a change in velocity of about 800 meters per second that started the spacecraft on its first of the ring-gap orbits.
A grand finale dive will plunge Cassini into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15th, vaporizing the spacecraft to protect tiny Enceladus, one of Saturn’s ocean worlds, from hardy Earth-based microbes that may have stowed-away on Cassini.
The Cassini mission’s findings have revolutionized our understanding of Saturn, its complex rings, the amazing assortment of moons and the planet’s dynamic magnetic environment. The robotic spacecraft arrived in 2004 after a 7-year flight from Earth, dropped a parachuted probe named Huygens to study the atmosphere and surface of Saturn’s big moon Titan. Some of the mission highlights include:
- The Huygens probe makes first landing on a moon in the outer solar system (Titan)
- The discovery of active, icy plumes on the Saturnian moon Enceladus
- Saturn’s rings revealed as active and dynamic — a laboratory for how planets form
- First complete view of the north polar hexagon and discovery of giant hurricanes at both of Saturn’s poles
- First Deep Seafloor Hydrothermal Vents Found Beyond Earth
The Cassini mission is a cooperative undertaking by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Italian space agency Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI).