Cassini spacecraft to dive inside Saturn's rings for mission finale

REUTERS

NASA is preparing to send its long-lived Cassini probe into the unexplored region between Saturn and its rings the spacecraft's suicidal plunge into the planet.

NASA is preparing to send its long-lived Cassini probe into the unexplored region between Saturn and its rings for a scientific grand finale before the spacecraft's suicidal plunge into the planet.

Since arriving at Saturn in July 2004, Cassini has been exploring the giant planet and its entourage of 62 known moons, including enigmatic Titan, believed by scientists to resemble an early Earth, and the ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, which is shooting ice particles out into space.

To avoid any chance that hitchhiking Earth microbes still alive on Cassini could contaminate any potential living organisms on Enceladus, NASA plans to crash the spacecraft, which is running out of fuel, into Saturn on Sept. 15.

An image of Saturn moon Mimas taken from NASA's Cassini spacecraft
NASA

An image of Saturn moon Mimas taken from NASA's Cassini spacecraft

READ MORE: Saturn's geyser-spouting moon Enceladus glows

But before its demise, Cassini has one last mission.

On April 22, Cassini will make a final pass by Titan and use the moon's gravity to slingshot itself into a new orbit that passes inside the 1,200-mile (1,930-km) wide gap between the edge of Saturn's atmosphere and its inner-most rings.

Second fiddle: The solar system's largest moon, Ganymede, beside Jupiter, in a picture taken by NASA's Cassini ...
NASA/Newsmakers

Second fiddle: The solar system's largest moon, Ganymede, beside Jupiter, in a picture taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on December 3, 2000.

NASA is hoping Cassini will survive long enough for 22 dives inside the rings, revealing details about the their age and composition. But if a ring particle hits Cassini, it could bring the mission to an premature end because the spacecraft will be travelling at more than 70,000 miles per hour (112,654 kph).

"At those speeds, even a tiny particle can do damage," Cassini flight engineer Joan Stupik, with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, told reporters during a news conference on NASA TV.

Scientists hope to learn if the rings are as old as Saturn itself -- roughly 4.6 billion years of age -- or if they formed later after a passing comet or moon was shredded by the planet's tremendous gravity.

Titan passing in front of Saturn and its rings in an image released by NASA.

Titan passing in front of Saturn and its rings in an image released by NASA.

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During the close ring encounters, Cassini also will study Saturn's atmosphere and take measurements to determine the size of the rocky core believed to exist at the center of the gigantic ball of gas that accounts for most of its size.

However long Cassini lasts, "the grand finale will be spectacular," said project scientist Linda Spilker, also with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

NASA plans to crash the spacecraft, which is running out of fuel, into Saturn, in September.
NASA

NASA plans to crash the spacecraft, which is running out of fuel, into Saturn, in September.

"We're flying in a region that has never been explored before," she said. "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if some of the discoveries we make with Cassini during the grand finale are the best of the mission."

 - Reuters

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