Between April and September 2017, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will undertake a daring set of orbits that is, in many ways, like a whole new mission. Following a final close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan, Cassini will leap over the planet’s icy rings and begin a series of 22 weekly dives between the planet and the rings.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will make its final close flyby of Saturn’s haze-enshrouded moon Titan this weekend. The flyby marks the mission’s final opportunity for up-close observations of the lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons that spread across the moon’s northern polar region, and the last chance to use its powerful radar to pierce the haze and make detailed images of the surface.
No other mission has ever explored this unique region. What we learn from these final orbits will help to improve our understanding of how giant planets – and planetary systems everywhere – form and evolve.
As Cassini plunges past Saturn, the spacecraft will collect some incredibly rich and valuable information that was too risky to obtain earlier in the mission:
* The spacecraft will make detailed maps of Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields, revealing how the planet is arranged internally, and possibly helping to solve the irksome mystery of just how fast Saturn is rotating.
* The final dives will vastly improve our knowledge of how much material is in the rings, bringing us closer to understanding their origins.
* Cassini’s particle detectors will sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn’s magnetic field.
* Its cameras will take amazing, ultra-close images of Saturn’s rings and clouds.