Cassini spacecraft starts Saturn ring-grazing orbits

First phase in mission endgame

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

It’s time for NASA’s Saturn spacecraft to begin part one of its daring final act.

The Cassini spacecraft will start a series of daring orbits Nov. 30 above and below Saturn’s poles just outside the planet’s rings, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California announced on Monday.

After getting a gravitational boost from Saturn’s moon Titan, Cassini will start phase one of the end of its mission.

The spacecraft will circle the planet’s poles diving down at the outer edge of Saturn’s rings every seven days starting in November until April 22.

"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," Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, said.

As Cassini grazes the rings, two instruments on the spacecraft will take samples of ring particles and gases, Spilker said.

 

Saturn’s rings were named in order of discovery -- A, B, C, D, E, F and G. The rings are fed by icy particles from small moons orbiting the planet, which could pose a threat to the spacecraft later during the mission’s end.

In March and April, Cassini with travel through the outer F ring.

“Even though we're flying closer to the F ring than we ever have, we'll still be more than 4,850 miles distant. There's very little concern over dust hazard at that range," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager.

These orbits will offer new glimpses at Saturn’s small moons Pandora, Atlas, Pan and Daphnis, according to JPL and the first ever close up look of main rings, A, B and F.

When the mission ends in September, Cassini will execute a close pass above Saturn’s clouds, passing through the rings, before taking a dive into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Cassini has been orbiting the Saturn system for more than 12 years, discovering a global ocean on moon Enceladus and mapping Titan’s liquid methane oceans.

Saturn

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