NASA’s Cassini mission has beamed back a plethora of fascinating takeaways as it continues to study Saturn and its moons. But as the saying goes, all good things must come to an end, and NASA scientists are currently preparing for a ton of new discoveries as the Cassini spacecraft enters its final six months before hurtling itself into the ringed planet’s atmosphere in September.
Not surprisingly, NASA has given this final phase a rather fitting name – the “Grand Finale,” which has been “in the works” since 2010, according to Spaceflight Now. That was when NASA had first given the green light to the plan, and that plan will culminate on September 15, when the Cassini spacecraft enters Saturn’s hydrogen-helium atmosphere.
This self-destructive entry will come after 22 week-long orbits between the planet’s innermost ring and its cloud tops, and will be set up on April 22 as the craft flies by the moon Titan. On April 26 or thereabouts, the Cassini mission will see its eponymous spacecraft make its first dive through the ring gap, marking the first time this part of Saturn will be explored.
In other words, NASA wants the Cassini mission to go out with a bang, albeit mainly in the figurative sense.
“In many ways, the grand finale for Cassini is like a brand new mission,” said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker, speaking to Spaceflight Now. “We’re going to probe Saturn’s interior, measure the magnetic field, look for the magnetic dynamo, and try and figure out why is there is so little, or perhaps no, tilt between the magnetic field axis and the spin axis of Saturn. What’s going on there?”
— Ian Regan (@IanARegan) March 9, 2017
As it is, the Cassini mission has been keeping busy and keeping people’s interests piqued with new findings. Yesterday, the Inquisitr reported on a new series of pictures showing the clearest look so far at Saturn’s moon Pan. These photos show the tiny moon’s peculiar shape in greater detail, and as noted, many have compared Pan’s appearance to several food types, including a walnut, an empanada, and ravioli.
Additionally, Space.com wrote about another recent discovery, where photos from the Cassini spacecraft revealed the “dual nature” of another one of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus. Based on the photos, the moon boasts of a heavily-cratered northern region, and a southern region that’s the exact opposite, and considerably smoother and crater-free.
Enceladus, one of the moons of Saturn. pic.twitter.com/5jNejhzQhM
— ned the toothpick (@nedthetoothpik) March 7, 2017
The thought of more thrilling discoveries relayed back home to Earth by the Cassini mission is an exciting one, but Spaceflight Now wrote that there may be some challenges along the way, and that the Cassini spacecraft would have to make it through what could be a dangerous dive through Saturn’s rings.
To date, no spacecraft has ever traveled through the 1,500-mile-wide gap between the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere, but NASA hopes Cassini will become the first when it makes its first passage next month. Cassini project manager Earl Maize warned that while there is no known dust or ice in the spacecraft’s path, its tremendous speed may cause serious damage if the craft collides with even a tiny grain of debris. He notes that the chances of such dust collisions are “higher than (what) we normally accept,” and that NASA will have to be prepared for such a possibility.
“The innermost ring is called the D ring, and it sort of just slowly fades away into areas we can’t see. We’re going into the area where we cannot see. We have really good models of the rings, and we believe we’re going to be safe, but nevertheless, there are going to be five instances where we’re going to hide behind the high-gain antenna as we go through the rings just because we’re kind of close.”
As the Cassini mission is now a good 19 years removed from its original launch date, the spacecraft is now dangerously low on fuel, with Maize commenting that it’s been “showing its age” on occasion. The craft’s Plasma Spectrometer, in fact, had stopped functioning in 2012. But with Cassini headed to Titan on April 22 and the spacecraft heading into Saturn’s atmosphere in September, NASA is undoubtedly getting ready for the Cassini mission’s “grand finale,” a moment Maize referred to as a potentially “poignant” one.
[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]