Posted by: maboulette | March 25, 2016


The motto that “all good things must end” even refers to epic missions in space.  In the case of NASA’s Cassini mission around Saturn, it is going to be a dramatic ending.

After over 10 years in orbit around the ringed gas planet, Cassini has revolutionized our understanding of Saturn’s rings, moons, and dynamic atmosphere. PHOTOS: Cassini’s Festive Tour of Spectacular Saturn

It has even put Earth in its place – a tiny blue dot in the vast expanse of space.

But Cassini cannot keep going forever; it will run out of fuel used by its thrusters for orbital adjustment – but this is not really a bad thing.

Up until now, managers of the mission have done everything to protect the spacecraft from any risks while in orbit with the hopes of prolonging Cassini’s life – but the mission is now coming to an end so they can afford to be somewhat less careful.  Starting this year, Cassini will be sent commands to carry out a “daring set of orbits that is, in some ways, like a whole new mission,” writes NASA in a recent news release.

This will evolve putting the trajectory to dive between the innermost ring and the planet 22 times.  Flying through the ring plane will have an increased chance for impacts with ring dust, ice grains, and large rocks. Until now such an orbital profile has been avoided.

Assuming it does not hit anything in the meantime and to avoid an end-of-mission collision with Titan or Enceladus – two of Saturn’s moons that scientists do not want to contaminate with any Earth-borne bacteria that could have hitched a ride on the probe.  Cassini will plummet into Saturn’s atmosphere, burning up in a final act that will be fiery.

PHOTOS: Moons of Saturn  

This final mission will enter a very distinct phase of its decade-long odyssey, NASA has asked for mission-naming ideas.  After the primary mission, Cassini was renamed in 2008 “Cassini Equinox”, then in 2010 “Cassini Solstice” – after each extension of the original mission.  Now, after suggestions from over 2,000 members of the public, this last act will be called “Cassini Grand Finale”.

“We chose a name for this mission phase that would reflect the exciting journey ahead while acknowledging that it’s a big finish for what has been truly great show,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

So there will still be several breathtaking years as Cassini approaches slowly its most intimate encounter with Saturn yet – returning very unique photos and historic science as it zooms through Saturn’s rings.

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