The death of Cassini: Nasa reveals 'grand finale' plans

On Wednesday, April 26, the spacecraft will make the first in a series of dives through the 1,500-mile-wide gap between Saturn and its rings.

Cassini's grand finale will be to perform 22 weekly dives between Saturn and its rings - an intricate and unsafe mission.

During this period, Titan's gravity will bend Cassini's flight path, causing its orbit to shrink until it passes between the planet and the inner edge of its rings.

As one of the scientists on the project put it: "Cassini's grand finale is so much more than a final plunge". The spacecraft will orbit the gas giant it's been observing since 2004 22 more times before taking the final plunge into its atmosphere in mid-September.

As Cassini plunges past Saturn, the spacecraft will collect some incredibly rich and valuable information that was too risky to obtain earlier in the mission.

The exact origin of the rings of Saturn has perplexed astronomers for centuries but, using the latest technology, the pieces of the puzzle are gradually being put together by researchers unattached to the Cassini mission.

"This is truly discovery in action to the very end".

The Cassini spacecraft was launched into space on October 15, 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on August 12, 2013 using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 728 nanometers.

"Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life". What we learn from these ultra-close passes over the planet could be some of the most exciting revelations ever returned by the long-lived spacecraft. Some material from Saturn's rings is always falling toward the surface of the planet, and at the speeds Cassini is traveling, a particle the size of a grain of sand could seriously damage the spacecraft.

Expect some dazzling images of Saturnian cloudtops as well, as the spacecraft gets up close and personal to the planet like never before.

As the spacecraft plummets into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15, it will keep its antennas firing toward Earth as long as possible, sending back important data.

Unlike its predecessors, though, Cassini entered orbit around Saturn, enabling scientists to study longterm changes on the planet. "Ultimately, Cassini's discoveries (caused) its demise". The US space agency launched the Cassini mission in 1997.

Over the last 13 years, the spacecraft found icy plumes erupting from Enceladus and methane lakes on Titan, two of Saturn's moons. Well, while there's been talk of dedicated missions to Titan or Enceladus, these are at best a decade or more away.

  • Joe Gonzales