CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida - NASA's Cassini spacecraft will deliberately make a fiery plunge into Saturn this year, ending the scientific probe's 13-year orbit around the ringed planet.
After launching from Cape Canaveral, Florida 20 years ago, Cassini is now running low on fuel. So NASA scientists and engineers decided to end the mission with a purposeful plunge into Saturn this year in order to protect and preserve the planet's moons for future exploration – especially the potentially habitable Enceladus.
Using expertise gained over the mission's many years, Cassini engineers designed a flight plan that will maximize the scientific value of sending the spacecraft toward its fateful plunge.
On April 26, Cassini will make the first in a series of 22 dives through the 1,500-mile-wide gap between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission’s grand finale.
In mid-September, the spacecraft's path will be bent so that it dives into the planet. When Cassini makes its final plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15, it will send data from several instruments – most notably, data on the atmosphere's composition – until its signal is lost.
"Based on our best models, we expect the gap to be clear of particles large enough to damage the spacecraft. But we're also being cautious by using our large antenna as a shield on the first pass, as we determine whether it's safe to expose the science instruments to that environment on future passes," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Certainly there are some unknowns, but that's one of the reasons we're doing this kind of daring exploration at the end of the mission."
NASA hopes to gain powerful insights into the planet's internal structure and the origins of the rings, obtain the first-ever sampling of Saturn's atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings, and capture the closest-ever views of Saturn's clouds and inner rings.
Watch NASA's animated simulation of Cassini's fiery death:
Image and video credit: NASA/JPL