“After 20 years in space, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is running out of fuel, and so to protect moons of Saturn that could have conditions suitable for life, a spectacular end has been planned for this long-lived traveler from Earth…”

This is Cassini’s Grand Finale, the final chapter of a spacecraft that, launched on October 15, 1997, has provided us with the first extensive study of Saturn, its rings, and its moons since its arrival on July 1, 2004.

Its mission ends on September 15, 2017, and so in these last few months, NASA is sending the spacecraft on an unprecedented 22 dives in between Saturn’s rings and atmosphere. The first dive occurred on April 26, 2017.

As Cassini plunges past Saturn, the spacecraft will collect some incredibly rich and valuable information that was too risky to obtain earlier in the mission:

  • The spacecraft will make detailed maps of Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields, revealing how the planet is arranged internally, and possibly helping to solve the irksome mystery of just how fast Saturn is rotating.
  • The final dives will vastly improve our knowledge of how much material is in the rings, bringing us closer to understanding their origins.
  • Cassini’s particle detectors will sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn’s magnetic field.
  • Its cameras will take amazing, ultra-close images of Saturn’s rings and clouds.

Its final orbit will send it hurtling towards the planet, “fighting to keep its antennae pointing at Earth as it transmits its farewell.”

To learn (and teach) more about the mission, visit JPL’s Grand Finale Toolkit and awesome timeline. Also not to be missed: The Day the Earth Smiled.

Next, watch Storm Chasing on Saturn: The hexagon-shaped hurricane and Around Saturn: The Cassini program’s incredible images animated.

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