Cassini's Grand Finale

Cassini’s Grand Finale: Pictures From and Between Saturn And Rings

Cassini’s Grand Finale: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft continues making history

Cassini
Cassini’s Grand Finale

Cassini
Cassini’s Grand Finale

The Cassini spacecraft has been studying Saturn and her moons for nearly 20 years and is now finally running out of fuel. The Cassini mission is set to end this September, but not without a big finale. It’s a Grand Finale, even, and it’s going to end with Cassini plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Before that though, it just went between Saturn and its rings for the first time ever, and we have the very first images. It’s going to end with Cassini plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere. Before that though, it just went between Saturn and its rings for the first time ever, and we have the very first images. Cassini is the first spacecraft to explore the 1,500-mile gap between Saturn and its rings.

The Orbiter used its dish-shaped high-gain antenna, which measures 13 feet across. The spacecraft came within about 1,900 miles of Saturn’s cloud tops during its epic dive and within about 200 miles of the innermost visible edge of the rings

The newly released Saturn photos by Cassini include two views of Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth-largest moon.

Cassini's
Cassini’s

Enceladus is a winter-appropriate ice world. Geysers at its poles shoot ice particles into space, some of which make it into orbit around Saturn. Some of this space “snow” becomes part of Saturn’s E ring, Saturn’s second outermost ring that is made of microscopic particles.

The spacecraft has generated a trove of scientific data on Saturn and its moons during its mission. Earlier this month, for example, NASA announced that Saturn’s moon Enceladus could support life thanks to the discovery of hydrogen.

Other images highlight Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

There are no jolly elves at Titan’s north pole; liquid methane and ethane seas appear as splotchy features near the moon’s poles. At the south pole, a high-altitude vortex swirls. The hazy orange atmosphere of Titan is thought to resemble the atmosphere of early Earth

Cassini's
Saturn-Moon-Titan

The reason Cassini is being dumped into Saturn’s atmosphere to be incinerated is actually pretty exciting: it’s because NASA doesn’t want to risk the unpowered spacecraft crashing on the surface of icy moons like Enceladus, which has a subsurface ocean that is a great candidate for harbouring life.

If Cassini crashed on that moon, it could contaminate any possible life that may exist there, and that would be, as scientists say, very very bad. But before all that incineration, Cassini has some derring-do to do, specifically threading the 1,500-mile-wide gap between Saturn and its rings at a brisk 77,000 mph. This brings the spacecraft closer to Saturn than any craft ever before, and it took some pictures, some of which NASA has released already, even before they can be fully processed and examined. Here they are:

That’s a feature in Saturn’s atmosphere. Some sort of storm or vortex?

Cassini's
Saturn Storm Vortex
More atmospheric features of Saturn, or perhaps a very close up and blurry picture of the sleeve of a sweater.
Cassini's
Atmospheric features of Saturn
Here you can see regular striations in the atmosphere, as well as what appears to be some sort of more turbulent atmospheric activity.
Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at Nasa Headquarters in Washington, said:
 ‘In the grandest tradition of exploration, Nasa’s Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare.’
No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,’ said Earl Maize, Cassini Project Manager.
‘I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape.
NASA at Saturn: Cassini’s Grand Finale:
Cassini's
Saturn
“Until Cassini arrived at Saturn, we didn’t know about the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan, the active drama of Enceladus’ jets, and the intricate patterns at Saturn’s poles,” Linda Spiller, the Cassini project scientist at NASA Jet’s Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said in a statement on Dec. 23. “Spectacular images like these highlight that Cassini has given us the gift of knowledge, which we have been so excited to share with everyone.”
Cassini’s mission is expected to continue through at least 2017, after which it will be decommissioned by a controlled fall through Saturn’s atmosphere. I’m sure we’ll be getting lots more information soon; in the meantime, it’s just fascinating to see these images so quickly after Cassini made its close pass. Another intra-ring pass is scheduled for May 2.

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