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Cassini Spacecraft Starts Diving Through Saturn’s Rings Today

Cassini Spacecraft Starts Diving Through Saturn’s Rings Today

Since launching in 1997, NASA’s Cassini mission has filled two decades to the brim with ground-breaking exploration of the most famous planet, Saturn. In fact, Cassini’s Huygens lander landed on Saturn’s moon, Titan, delivering otherworldly views of our solar system. Not to mention, Cassini discovered evidence for water, and therefore potential life on moon, Enceladus. Concluding its twenty-year mission, Cassini will complete its most daring feat, diving through Saturns rings, beginning today. Let’s breakdown the Cassini ring dive:

How the dives will happen, and end

Today, Cassini spacecraft will alter its trajectory so it dives through the 1,500 miles gap separating Saturn and it rings. Furthermore, the craft will complete this daredevil Cassini ring dive for an impressive 22 orbits! The image below shows how the dive will look from the perspective of Cassini spacecraft. Amazing!

cassini ring dive animation

Next, with each of its 22 orbits, Cassini will grow closer and closer to Saturn itself. Ultimately, on the final orbit, Cassini spacecraft will crash into Saturn’s atmosphere, ending its mission. However, the crash landing will not occur until September 15, and is no accident at all! In fact, the kamikaze finale is intentionally planned by NASA for good reasons.

Some Earth-born microbes are able to withstand extremely cold, or hot conditions. As a result, these microbes risk contaminating surrounding areas, like Titan or Enceladus. Being the leading candidates for life beyond Earth, and potential future colonization, NASA is taking no risk. Crashing Cassini spacecraft into Saturn’s atmosphere will eliminate any tag-along microbes, and risk of contamination. NASA’s Juno mission will complete the same tragic mission finale!

What we will learn from Cassini ring dive

During two decades of close-up exploration of Saturn, Cassini has, no doubt, taught us loads of valuable information. However, face-to-face interactions with Saturn and its rings will deliver new troves of helpful information. Not to mention, it will deliver some sensational photo opportunities as well!

Until now, scientists have only been able to measure the mass of Saturn, rings included. However, during its ring dives, Cassini spacecraft will help us understand the mass of only the rings. Ok, why is this important?

Isolating characteristics about Saturn’s rings, like its mass, allows to better understand how the rings formed. And, understanding more about ring formations allows to better understand how all planets form over time from rings of debris around the Sun!

Cassini ring dive photo ops

Cassini spots Earth staring back at it through Saturn's rings

Cassini spots Earth staring back at it through Saturn’s rings. NASA/JPL

Plus, while perilously crashing into Saturn, Cassini spacecraft will snag some last minute photos and information, sure to blow our minds. After all, Cassini has already taken photos of Earth through Saturn’s rings, without even diving yet!

during it’s final hours, “several of the instruments will be on,” according to NASA spokesperson Preston Dyches. Among the instruments, Cassini’s mass spectrometer. Simply put, spectrometers read specific color signatures from light. As a result, Cassini spacecraft’s spectrometer will allow it to determine the precise chemical makeup of Saturn’s atmosphere.

Artist’s rendering of Cassini’s Saturn clouds pictures. NASA/JPL

Last but not least, in its final hours, Cassini spacecraft will capture fantastic views of Saturn’s clouds. Like other gas giant planets, Saturn’s atmosphere is a turbulent world, full of violent storms and complex weather systems. Therefore, massive, billowing clouds cloak the planet. While falling to its inevitable death, Cassini spacecraft will deliver truly awesome close-up images of these clouds.

Naturally, NASA saved Cassini spacecraft’s ring dive for the final stage of the mission. Cassini will be weaving through regions containing millions of pieces of debris. Even a rather small piece of debris could easily take the spacecraft offline.

Astronimate will keep you updated as Cassini spacecraft carries out its final mission. Godspeed Cassini!