By Jonathan Stroud
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is scheduled to begin the “Cassini’s Ring-Grazing Orbits” phase of its mission around Saturn on November 30, 2016.
Launched in 1997, the spacecraft has been studying the giant gas planet and its moons since it arrived in 2004. Using a gravitational tug from Saturn’s moon Titan, Cassini will adjust its trajectory to begin the first part of the “grand finale” phase of its mission. In September 2017, the spacecraft will plunge into the planet in order to keep the spacecraft from potentially contaminating one of the planet’s moons after it runs out of fuel. The descent into destruction will also provide a close-up view of the planet’s gravity, composition, and atmosphere.
During the “Ring-Grazing Orbits” phase, the spacecraft will explore Saturn’s F ring, which is approximately 500 miles (800 kilometers) wide, during a scheduled 20-time orbit. During the close encounter with the ring, it will also gather data and observations from some of the smaller moons that orbit near the edge of the rings.
According to Cassini project scientist Lina Spilker at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, “We’re calling this phase of the mission Cassini’s Ring-Grazing Orbits because we’ll be skimming past the outer edge of the rings.”
She continued, “We have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ring plane, so in a sense, Cassini is also ‘grazing’ on the rings.”
Why Should I Care?
You should care because during the close approach of the rings, the spacecraft may reveal data that is currently unknown to scientists. During the passes, the spacecraft will continue to provide information that will help to expand scientist’s knowledge and understanding of the gaseous giant and its rings.
Why Is This Cool?
This is cool because the spacecraft has observed and collected data that was previously only suspected by scientists, such as global oceans on Enceladus and liquid methane seas on Titan. In addition, the final plunge into Saturn will complete Cassini’s “life” in a thrilling way that matches the astounding accomplishments and discoveries it’s had throughout its 20-year mission.
Check out a video of Cassini’s orbits here:
Keep up with the latest Cassini updates and space-related content at Journalists For Space.