Cassini will fly between Saturn’s rings for first time ever

Emma Flickinger Apr 17, 2017

The Cassini probe has spent the last 13 years orbiting Saturn at a distance, faithfully gathering data and sending it back to Earth. Now, it is entering the nal stage of its mission, named the Grand Finale, and will eventually plunge into the planet itself.

NASA describes the Cassini mission as “one of the most ambitious efforts in planetary space exploration.” Launched in 1997, Cassini revealed the landscapes of Saturn’s moons: geysers on Enceladus, lakes of methane on Titan, an oxygen atmosphere on Rhea.

It also discovered multiple new moons. Cassini photographed and collected data from Saturn’s atmosphere and composition. It observed rare weather phenomena, like two storms merging and another storm wrapping its way around the planet end-to- end. The probe also examined Saturn’s rings in a level of detail never before possible.
Much of what we know about Saturn, and almost all we know about its moons, comes from the Cassini mission and its cargo, the Huygens probe; nonetheless, even after two decades in space, Cassini still has more to learn in its last months.

Cassini, on its 127th and nal trip past Saturn’s moon Titan, will use the moon’s gravity to swing into a tighter orbit around Saturn. This closer orbit will place Cassini between Saturn and its rings, a space that has never been studied before. From this new perspective, Cassini will help scientists learn more about Saturn’ gravity and magnetic eld, as well as clear up some persistent mysteries like how fast the planet rotates. It will also take the clearest photographs yet of the innermost moons.

Cassini will also explore Saturn’s rings and attempt to determine their age, mass, and composition.
Like the previous stages of Cassini’s journey, this nal expedition promises rich new data. “It will be like a whole new mission,” according to Linda Spilker, Cassini’s project scientist at JPL.

After 22 close orbits over the next five months, Cassini will have exhausted its fuel. On Sept. 15, one month short of twenty years of service, it will hurtle directly into Saturn’s atmosphere. It will collect and transmit atmospheric data until it is crushed and ultimately disintegrated by Saturn’s gravity. Planetary scientist Sarah Horst assures us that “even in its nal moments, Cassini will be doing groundbreaking science.” Cassini will discover how the rings’ material is distributed, and how they may have formed. These revelations will in turn inform scientists about the evolution of planets in our solar system. Cassini has been one of the most succesful exploration and data collection missions.