It was the beginning of the ‘Grand Finale’ of a 20-year journey as spacecraft Cassini dove between Saturn and its rings on Wednesday (26 April).
The area between Saturn and its rings is unexplored, and no spacecraft has attempted this path, which took Cassini just 3000kms from the top of Saturn’s cloud tops. Cassini will make the manoeuvre 22 times until 15 September 2017 when it will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, sending back data for as long as it can.
Cassini launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn seven years later. During its time orbiting Saturn, Cassini has provided data and images that have helped scientists understand the gas giant, its rings and moons. The Huygens probe, separated from Cassini in December 2004, landed on Titan in January 2005, the first landing on a moon in the outer solar system. Cassini observed changes in Saturn’s ring system including the possible birth of a new moon, and in 2010-2011 Cassini observed a great storm in the northern hemisphere of Saturn measuring the largest temperature increases ever recorded for any planet. The list of Cassini contributions is long and these final exciting events add to the history-making list of achievements.
The beginning of the end mission has already seen the transmission of new raw images of Saturn’s atmosphere, taken from closer than ever before. The next four months will provide a fascinating look at the planet but sadly the mission comes to an end. NASA will direct Cassini to plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, a move to protect the environment of the moons.
Keep an eye on the mission and the upcoming orbits here: https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/grand-finale/grand-finale-orbit-guide/