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Cassini Grand Finale: NASA To Crash The Probe Into Saturn

06 April 2017, 02:44 | Kristen Gross

Nasa's Cassini spacecraft to end 20-year Saturn mission by self-destructing

NASA Saturn Mission News Conference Live Stream: Cassini 'Grand Finale' Preview

But now Cassini is running out of fuel and NASA is preparing for its grand finale - a series of dives through the 1,500 gap between Saturn and its rings.

"What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve". It will continue to beam back "extraordinary observations" until its demise, according to Linda Spilker, Cassini's project scientist. In 2010, NASA made a decision to end the mission with a purposeful plunge into Saturn this year in order to protect and preserve the planet's moons for future exploration - especially the potentially habitable icy moon Enceladus.

During the close ring encounters, Cassini also will study Saturn's atmosphere and take measurements to determine the size of the rocky core believed to exist at the center of the huge ball of gas that accounts for most of its size.

Since reaching Saturn's system on June 30, 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been sending valuable data and images of Saturn and its moons.

Cassini is nearing its final days - and final orbits. "We'll end up with no gas in the tank, but at the same time, this is a very serious constraint".

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In addition to finding methane lakes on Titan, Cassini also found icy plumes bursting from Enceladus, and discovered that Hyperion is the only satellite of a planet besides Earth's moon that has a statically charged surface.

Enjoy these final few months, as Cassini gives us some unparalleled views of the original Ringed Planet. He added that mission team members are confident that Cassini will encounter only the smallest particles in the ring gap, and the probability of losing the spacecraft to an impact with something bigger is "less than 1 percent".

Cassini's last close flyby of Saturn's giant moon Titan is planned for April 22.

To be fair, this is classic Cassini: Even as it's dying, the fearless li'l orbiter will have its antenna pointed at Earth, broadcasting its life up until the very end. The spacecraft has already completed 20 ring dives since the beginning of its suicidal plunge in November 2016. "Flying this close to the rings of a planet, that's a once in a lifetime experience for a scientist". Eventually, Maize said, it will lose contact, break up and vaporise. The agency also pondered crashing the craft into one of the planet's 62 moons, but ultimately decided not to contaminate them for possible future missions.

Cassini also discovered Enceladus' fantastic water plumes, which in turn helped reveal that the satellite hosts an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell.

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