It’s the start of a “grand finale” for an intrepid spacecraft. NASA’s unmanned Cassini spacecraft will plunge toward Saturn’s rings on December 4, getting up-close and personal with the gas giant’s most striking features.
Scientists expect great photos from its final, ring-grazing orbits, but they’re also looking to unlock several of the planet’s mysteries. Cassini will sample ring material, map the planet’s gravitational and magnetic fields, and pin down just how quickly the planet’s interior rotates.
Studying Saturn and its rings offers clues on how many planets form.
— CassiniSaturn (@CassiniSaturn) November 26, 2016
In 2017, Cassini will dive into Saturn’s upper atmosphere, where it will burn up like a meteor. That’s actually a good thing — once the craft runs out of fuel, scientists want to completely destroy it so any stowaway Earth microbes could never contaminate any of Saturn’s moons.
Did you know?
- Although Saturn’s rings look solid, they’re not. Most are no thicker than 10 meters — about the length of an average bus.
- Billions of tiny, icy particles make up Saturn’s rings.
- Saturn has at least 53 moons, including icy Enceladus. Cassini discovered that Enceladus has a global ocean and at least 100 geysers spouting water vapor near the moon’s south pole.
The Cassini mission, which is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, launched almost 20 years ago. You can follow Cassini’s grand finale online.