Updated 1:51 pm, Friday, March 17, 2017
The spacecraft Cassini, a joint space venture between NASA and the European Space Agency, is having one hell of a ride. It left Earth in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004 on what was supposed to be a four-year mission exploring the ringed giant and its moons.
But Cassini just kept going. It is now nearing the end of its second extended mission and, finally, its life. On Sept. 15, nearly empty of fuel, the spacecraft will be guided into Saturn's atmosphere. NASA and the ESA decided to crash it into Saturn rather than risk the chance of it hitting one of the planet's moons and possibly contaminating it with microbes.
This graphic illustrates Cassini's trajectory, or flight path, during the final two phases of its mission. The 20 Ring-Grazing Orbits are shown in gray; the 22 Grand Finale Orbits are shown in blue. The final partial orbit is colored orange.
“As Cassini plunges past Saturn,” NASA summarized about its final 22 orbits, “the spacecraft will collect some incredibly rich and valuable information that the mission's original planners might never have imagined. The spacecraft will make detailed maps of Saturn's gravity and magnetic fields, revealing how the planet is composed on the inside, and possibly helping to solve the irksome mystery of just how fast the interior is rotating.
It will vastly improve our knowledge of how much material is in the rings, bringing us closer to understanding their origins. Cassini's particle detectors will sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn's magnetic field. And its cameras will take amazing, ultra-close images of Saturn's rings and clouds.”
Meanwhile, the little spacecraft that could has also been snapping some wonderfully gothic images of Saturn, its rings and little moons that disturb them. Check them out in the gallery above.
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