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Nine of Cassini's most exciting discoveries about Saturn

15 September 2017, 12:39 | Kristen Gross

US Spacecraft Cassini Readies for Fiery Plunge Into Saturn After 13-Year Mission

This illustration by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory highlights some numbers in the final journey Cassini will take this week as it prepares to crash into Saturn on Friday

Scientists expect to lose contact with the probe at around 12.55pm United Kingdom time as Cassini begins to feel the effects of drag from Saturn's atmosphere and starts to tumble, causing its dish antenna to lose sight of Earth.

His team will also investigate the phenomenon of "ring rain", when water vapor and ice grains from the rings descend into the gas giant's atmosphere. The spectrometer will attempt to investigate what material is from the rings and what material is part of the atmosphere. Saturn's "Grand Finale" dive is primarily aimed to protect Enceladus, which has a higher planetary-protection standard - Titan is just a bonus, the scientists said. Cassini will enter Saturn's atmosphere approximately one minute earlier, at an altitude of about 1,190 miles (1,915 kilometers) above the planet's estimated cloud tops (the altitude where the air pressure is 1-bar, equivalent to sea level on Earth). Eastern Time for the spacecraft, but given the time it takes for the signal to reach Earth, we will receive those last bits of data just before 8 a.m. - long after Cassini is "gone".

Earl Maize, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory said: "We'll be saddened, there's no doubt about it, at the loss of such an incredible machine".

The fourth space probe to visit the solar system's second-largest planet (preceded by Voyager 1, Voyager 2 and Pioneer 11), Cassini is the first to orbit the gaseous giant.

A flyby of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, on September 11 put Cassini on an irreversible trajectory for that final encounter with the planet.

These will include views of the moons Enceladus and Titan, which harbour huge volumes of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces and where scientists believe simple lifeforms might be able to eke out an existence. NASA did not want to risk Cassini crashing into any of Saturn's moons and potentially contaminating them with microbes from Earth. During its time in orbit, Cassini has discovered numerous moons, made over a hundred fly-bys of Titan, taken hundreds of thousands of photographs of Saturn and its 62 moons, and provided the data to identify 101 saltwater geysers erupting on the 6th largest moon, Enceladus.

For more than a decade, NASA's Cassini spacecraft at Saturn took "a magnifying glass" to the enchanting planet, its moons and rings.

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Cassini was the NASA-developed Saturn orbiter, and Huygens was the European-built probe that sat on-board, which would eventually descend on to the surface of Saturn's biggest moon, Titan.

Once Cassini came back online, Staab said, the data could stream alongside the real-time observations, though the process would consume more bandwidth. The final dive on Friday is a dramatic conclusion to this unique, long and scientifically valuable goodbye.

The Cassini space probe will be collecting scientific information right up to the moment it plunges into Saturn, and burns up.

NASA can't see the probe destroyed from 932 million miles away, since no other spacecraft exist at Saturn.

Even among NASA missions, Cassini really is an overachiever. On the flip side, more massive rings would suggest they originated around the same time as Saturn, more than 4 billion years ago. Of Cassini's 162 targeted flybys of Saturn's 53 named and nine unnamed moons, 127 were of Titan.

When Cassini runs out of fuel it could accidentally crash into this pristine world, spreading earthly contamination. Cassini has made 20 of these sub-ring orbits, using the last five to dip so close to Saturn that it could directly measure the planet's atmosphere.

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