Photo of Earth From Saturn Rings

Guillermo Lane
April 28, 2017

On Saturday, April 22, NASA's Cassini will make a transition to its grand finale orbit. It's treacherous territory. Even a speck from the rings could cripple Cassini, given its velocity. On Sept 15, 2017, it will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, collecting and returning data as long as possible.

The most risky days yet have started for the Cassini-Huygens American-European space probe that was launched from Earth to study ringed Saturn, the sixth major planet from the Sun, nearly 20 years ago.

This flyby is also the gateway to NASA Cassini spacecraft's "Grand Finale". During the encounter, Cassini passed as close as 608 miles (979 kilometers) above Titan's surface at a speed of about 13,000 mph (21,000 kph). During this time, Titan's gravity will pull Cassini and end its orbit enough to change its course from the outer ring to the inner rings. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.


The flyby is Cassini's 127th targeted encounter with Titan. While we may be a far way away from discovering life on another planet, we are getting much closer to finding planets that support life as we know it. A particle, as small as a dust particle, could pierce the spacecraft and render it useless before its end mission. The spacecraft will examine the lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons in the northern polar region of Titan. It doesn't want to shower contaminating wreckage onto these worlds that might harbor life. First spotted by Galileo in 1610, the rings are believed to be 99 percent ice; the remaining 1 percent is a mystery, said project scientist Linda Spilker. This is Cassini's last view of Earth, taken from a ittle under a billion miles away. The team at NASA are keen to take a closer look, 'We don't understand what the structures would be and there maybe no way for us to tell remotely, until we actually get into these oceans, ' said Dr Voytek.

"But the best is still yet to come - perhaps", Maize said at a news conference in early April. "We're going to go screaming over the top of Saturn".

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