cassini probe

Cassini to make its final descent into the depths of Saturn next month

The Cassini space probe is set to end its 13-year journey next month after it sends its final transmissions while crashing into Saturn’s thick atmosphere.

It is the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn and will make the last of 22 farewell dives between the planet’s rings and its surface on 15 September 2017 before burning up as it heads straight into the gas giant’s crushing atmosphere.

Cassini’s final dive will end a mission that provided ground-breaking discoveries that included seasonal changes on Saturn, the moon Titan’s resemblance to a primordial Earth and a global ocean on the moon Enceladus with ice plumes spouting from its surface.

Its self-destruction has been deliberately planned by scientists who want to prevent any biological contamination of Saturn’s moons, several of which could potentially contain life.

By destroying the spacecraft, NASA will ensure that any hitchhiking Earth microbes still alive on Cassini will not contaminate the moons for future study.

“The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful and it’s coming to an end in about two weeks,” Curt Niebur, Cassini program scientist, said on a telephone conference call with reporters from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

Cassini’s final photo as it heads into Saturn’s atmosphere will likely be of propellers, or gaps in the rings caused by moonlets, said project scientist Linda Spilker.

The spacecraft will provide near real-time data on the atmosphere until it loses contact with Earth at 11:54 GMT on 15 September.

Spilker said Cassini’s latest data on the rings had shown they had a lighter mass than forecast. That suggests they are younger than expected - around 120 million years - and thus were created after the birth of the solar system, she said.

During its final orbits between the atmosphere and the rings, Cassini also studied Saturn’s atmosphere and took measurements to determine the size of the planet’s rocky core.

Cassini has been probing Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, and its entourage of 62 known moons since July 2004. It has provided enough data for almost 4,000 scientific papers.

Last year the Juno probe, which has been orbiting Jupiter, discovered the origin of that gas giant’s mysterious hot spot. 

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