NASA Prepares To Bid Adieu To Cassini Spacecraft Orbiting Saturn

6 April 2017, 12:49 pm EDT By Sumit Passary Tech Times
NASA is poised to bid adieu to the Cassini mission in April. The 20-year old Cassini spacecraft has orbited Saturn for the last 13 years.  ( NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory | YouTube )

NASA's Cassini spacecraft was launched in 1997 and has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. However, the space agency is now planning the final few missions with the spacecraft.

According to NASA's website, it will begin preparing the Cassini craft for its final run on April 26. During its final mission, Cassini will perform a series of 22 dives in the region between Saturn and its rings.

Cassini's Final Voyage

The spacecraft reached Saturn 13 years ago in July. It has since explored the planet, as well as its 62 moons, including Titan. Scientists believe Titan bears many similarities to early Earth. During its voyages, Cassini has successfully shed light on liquid methane seas on Titan's surface.

Cassini also explored an ocean-bearing moon known as Enceladus, which showed signs of hydrothermal activity. This led scientists to believe that it may be able to support life.

However, NASA says that after 20 years of its launch, the spacecraft is now low on fuel. Therefore, the space agency has decided to terminate the mission by plunging Cassini into Saturn's surface. NASA asserted that this decision was taken to protect and preserve the planet's moon for future exploration.

Before its comes to rest, Cassini will go through the 1,500-mile gap between Saturn and its rings several times, to present new data to scientists back on Earth.

Scientists are particularly interested in learning whether Saturn's rings are as old as the planet itself, or if they were formed at a later stage.

"This planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists," confirmed Linda Spilker, a scientist involved with the project at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

When Will Cassini Go Offline?

NASA officials revealed that in September, the spacecraft would have a close encounter with Titan. Following this encounter, Cassini's course will be modified. The spacecraft would then make its final plunge towards Saturn's surface.

Before the crash, scheduled for Sept. 15, 2017, scientists will attempt to learn as much as possible about the planet's surface, before the signal is lost forever.

"It's a thrilling final chapter for our intrepid spacecraft, and so scientifically rich that it was the clear and obvious choice for how to end the mission," Spilker added.

However, scientists caution that due to high speeds of around 70,000 miles per hour, even the smallest particles on Saturn's ring could pose great risk to the spacecraft. This may potentially result in the mission ending prematurely.

NASA released an illustrative video, which showcases the exact nature of the final mission. Check it out below.

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