NASA prepares for Cassini's grand finale on Saturn

  • NASA prepares for Cassini's grand finale on Saturn

NASA prepares for Cassini's grand finale on Saturn

As Cassini approaches Saturn over the next two days, it will take its final images of the planet and its moons.

The same might be true for Cassini's place in pop culture.

On Friday morning, the spacecraft will become a martyr to science as it plunges into Saturn's atmosphere. So when NASA finally put the thing in a death spiral around Saturn in April, you'd think that the mission's scientists would have breathed a sigh of relief.

"Some of our key science goals during the Grand Finale are trying to understand Saturn from the inside out, to figure out the length of a Saturn day and to determine the mass of the rings and the composition of Saturn's atmosphere", Spilker said.

Cassini will go down in history for being the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn.

And of course, we wouldn't know much of anything about Enceladus and Titan without Cassini's dogged work exploring Saturn and its many moons. Carried onboard Cassini was a European lander, named Huygens, which set down on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. In its final five orbits, it will have passed through Saturn's uppermost atmosphere before making the final plunge directly into the gaseous planet's surface for a fiery end.

"Its true legacy is how NASA responds to the observations it made and then make decisions on how to utilize those in another series of missions", stated Green.

It is known as the Cassini-Huygens mission because it delivered ESA's Huygens probe to Titan - the "first descent and landing on a world in the outer solar system", according to NASA. But outside those two communities, what will serve as the tangible reminders of the mission?

The Cassini spacecraft is now has less than 36 hours left before it commits suicide. The Cassini-Huygens mission also brought together three agencies (NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian space agency), with a total of 27 nations participating. That's because scientists have been able to "pursue questions that we never thought Cassini would have the opportunity to answer", he said.

What kind of mission will actually follow up on the curiosities Cassini has piqued? "You're racing against the clock at that point", he said.

The Cassini mission did result in several dedicated books, including a Haynes' Owners' Workshop Manual penned by Ralph Lorenz, a member of the Cassini radar team.

But this meteor isn't a rock: It's NASA's nuclear-powered Cassini spacecraft plunging to its doom. Cassini successfully sailed through the gap 22 times, providing ever better close-ups of Saturn.

Cassini was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004.

Cassini's mission has produced a treasure trove of scientific data and mesmerizing images. "What would it look like if I could hold a ring particle in my hand?" Saturn's many moons contribute material to Saturn's rings and magnetosphere, but these same moons also collect material that forms the rings and magnetosphere.

"Cassini is not built for the atmosphere", Maize said.

Mission scientists and operators are giving Cassini this fiery send-off on goal.

It's sad and exhilarating for a University of Colorado Boulder scientist who's been involved in the mission for many years. Scientists have published about 4,000 papers on the Saturn realm, with many more to come.

Still, "this mission has been going for so long, it's a little hard to believe that it's over", he says. Cassini has collected 450,000 images using a visible light camera. "And we have been profoundly successful". There are so many puzzles at Saturn.