After 13 years of orbiting Saturn, collecting data about its moons and their oceans, and stunning the world with images of the solar system’s most photogenic planet, Cassini’s historic mission is coming to an end. The intrepid spacecraft is running out of fuel, but true to form, it has one final, spectacular mission to complete.
Beginning on Wednesday, April 26, Cassini will fly between Saturn and its rings. Not once, not twice, but 22 times. It’s almost as though the spacecraft is saying goodbye to the planet by performing the dives, which will culminate in one final plunge into the planet itself on September 15th, 2017.
This last pass isn’t just a dramatic farewell—it’s the last of Cassini’s scientific missions. After one final flyby of Titan on April 22, Cassini’s orbit will contract, pulling it closer to the planet. Cassini will then spend roughly five months diving between Saturn and its rings, gathering as much information as possible about the planet, including a sample of Saturn’s atmosphere and ring particles. The spacecraft has never traveled through this region before, which will afford it incredible views of both the rings and Saturn itself and shed light on “how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve,” according to NASA administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen.
Cassini on one of its last dives (illustration). Credit: NASA/JPL
NASA developed this final mission back in 2010, when it decided that the best and safest way to end the mission was to have Cassini plummet into the planet it’s been orbiting since 2004. Researchers wanted to avoid harming any of Saturn’s moons, particularly Enceladus, given their potential for life. Ending in a blaze of glory seems a fitting cap for this historic mission. And of course, Cassini will be sending data from its final run until the very end.