NASA's Cassini probe studying the planet Saturn will move into its final journey in a few days prior to the mid-September demise at Saturn's atmosphere.
The U.S. space agency officials announced at a press conference that they are killing the spacecraft in the "Grand Finale," which will start on April 23.
In the final maneuver, Cassini will be on a collision course with the atmosphere of Saturn. NASA has said the spacecraft is facing a fuel crunch and the mission will be wound up by the probe's crash.
The last day of $3.26 billion Cassini will be Sept. 15, when the spacecraft will "break apart, melt, vaporize, and become a part of the very planet it left Earth 20 years ago to explore," stated Cassini project manager Earl Maize.
Even the last leg of Cassini's journey will be unique. Flying over 76,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft will steer through the gap between Saturn and its rings where no spacecraft has hitherto flown. Before ending life at Saturn, Cassini will complete 22 laps in the region.
Avoiding Contamination Of Saturn's Moons
Cassini's crash demise at Saturn has been planned by NASA to avoid any contamination of the nearby moon, which might be harboring alien life. However, before the robot perishes at Saturn, Cassini will be gleaning valued data with its flyby between Saturn and its rings.
"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," noted Linda Spilker, NASA's scientist involved in the Cassini project at California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
To Steer Clear Of Aliens In Saturn's Moons
There had been concerns over chances of Cassini's accidental landing on the moons of Saturn. The decision to kill the spacecraft at Saturn was tactical to avoid infestation by any alien organisms. By burning to death, Cassini can be free of hitchhikers.
Cassini's last mission will take it to a final pass by Titan to be slingshot into a new orbit assisted by the moon's gravity. The new orbit will take Cassini into the 1,200-mile gap between the edge of Saturn's atmosphere and innermost rings.
In case any ring particle hits Cassini, the mission will come to a premature end, as the spacecraft will be traveling at a massive speed of more than 70,000 miles per hour.
"At those speeds, even a tiny particle can do damage," noted flight engineer Joan Stupik at Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA.
Scientists are looking for new information to ascertain whether Saturn's rings were as old as the planet, which is 4.6 billion years old, or the rings were formed by the shredding of any comet or moon by the planet's tremendous gravity.
Cassini's Glorious Mission Of 20 Years
Cassini, the nuclear-powered spacecraft with the name Cassini-Huygens, came into Saturn's orbit in July 2004 after being launched in October 1997. Since then, it has been surveying the planet's plethora of moons.
Overall, Cassini mission is considered very productive given the high-value study of Saturn, its rings, and its moons. The images sent by Cassini showcased Enceladus's geysers, hinting an ocean underneath, and Saturn's Earth-like moon, Titan.