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NASA prepares the Cassini spacecraft for its daring final Saturn mission

NASA prepares the Cassini spacecraft for its daring final Saturn mission

For what NASA has described as Cassini's "grand finale" as it runs short on fuel, the spacecraft will soar through a 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its rings.

NASA's unmanned Cassini spacecraft preparing to dive into the unexplored rings of Saturn.

"What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve", Zurbuchen said. Cassini gave us close-up views of worlds only glimpsed during previous flybys, revealed seven new moons orbiting Saturn, ice geyser plumes on Enceladus, methane lakes on Titan, spokes in the rings of Saturn, and much more.

"Based on our best models, we expect the gap to be clear of particles large enough to damage the spacecraft", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

"The planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists", says Linda Spilker (NASA-JPL) in a recent press release. Cassini will leap over the planet's icy rings and begin a series of 22 weekly dives between the panel and its rings.

Cassini has been a decades-long odyssey for the scientists involved, and the probe's 3-minute final dive into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15 will be a bittersweet moment, the researchers said.

Cassini's "grand finale" is like a mission unto itself.

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This mission does come with some risk, which is why NASA waited until the very end before undertaking it.

For example, watch the arrival at Saturn on July 1st, 2004, or see Cassini launch the Huygens probe and follow it to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

In mid-September, following a distant encounter with Titan, the spacecraft's path will be bent so that it dives into the planet. But if a ring particle hits Cassini, it could bring the mission to an premature end because the spacecraft will be traveling at more than 70,000 miles per hour (112,654 kph).

On Tuesday scientists announced the plan for Cassini.

To be fair, this is classic Cassini: Even as it's dying, the fearless li'l orbiter will have its antenna pointed at Earth, broadcasting its life up until the very end. It will also provide new details on the rings that could help pin down how they formed, whether from a moon that ventured too close to its parent planet or from material that never got a chance to gather into a moon.

Cassini will fly by Titan on April 22 and the moon's gravity will shrink Cassini's orbit down to the final rotations.

The animation below offers an overview of how Cassini's final months will play out.

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