Video NASA's Cassini spacecraft will enter the final stages of its mission by nosediving between Saturn’s rings on April 26, before it rams into the planet's atmosphere and vaporizes.
The spaceship was launched 20 years ago and has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004. Now, running low on fuel, it's preparing for the descent through the 1,500-mile (2,400-kilometer)-wide gap between the planet and its rings.
"No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we'll attempt to boldly cross 22 times," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.
"What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end."
NASA engineers are currently conducting a final check on the list of commands that will maximize scientific returns during the kamikaze dive, before uploading the instructions to Cassini on April 11. The team hope to capture closeups of the planet's clouds and inner rings and grab a sample of the atmosphere on its way.
The new discoveries will join a long list of accomplishments carried out during the mission, including tantalizing evidence of oceans on Saturn's moon Enceladus that could possibly harbor life.
If all goes smoothly, the spaceship will zoom by Titan, Saturn's largest moon, on April 22. The flyby will bend Cassini's flight path, nudging it between the planet and the inner edge of its rings. It should cross the first ring plane on April 26.
"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."
On September 15, Cassini will make its suicidal charge into the atmosphere. It will use its remaining fuel trying to point its antennae to Earth on the way, sending back data, before atmospheric compression destroys the probe, scattering it across Saturn's skies in a matter of minutes. ®