Cassini spacecraft death plunge into Saturn: End of 20-year mission, dramatic photos


Cassini spacecraft death plunge into Saturn: End of 20-year mission, dramatic photos
  1. Cassini spacecraft death plunge into Saturn: End of 20-year mission, dramatic photos
    mynewsla.com
    The JPL-managed Cassini spacecraft will enter the final phase of its 20-year mission Sunday evening when it begins a series of “ultra- close” passes through Saturn’s upper atmosphere, followed by a final terminating plunge into the planet. Cassini will make the first of five close flybys of Saturn at 9:22 p.m. Sunday, California time, bringing…
    California (CA)
Share this article: The planet SaturnCassini obtained images of Saturn’s northern hemisphere during the planet’s summer solstice in mid-2017. Photo: NASA

The JPL-managed Cassini spacecraft will enter the final phase of its 20-year mission Sunday evening when it begins a series of “ultra- close” passes through Saturn’s upper atmosphere, followed by a final terminating plunge into the planet.

Cassini will make the first of five close flybys of Saturn at 9:22 p.m. Sunday, California time, bringing the spacecraft to within 1,010 to 1,060 miles of the ringed planet’s cloud tops, according to Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The close orbit is expected to plunge the spacecraft into atmospheric conditions dense enough to require the use of rocket thrusters to keep the ship stable.

The conditions are expected to rival those experienced when Cassini made a series of close passes by the Saturn moon Titan.

“Cassini’s Titan flybys prepared us for these rapid passes through Saturn’s upper atmosphere,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “Thanks to our past experience, the team is confident that we understand how the spacecraft will behave at the atmospheric densities our models predict.”

If Saturn’s atmosphere is too dense, mission managers may be forced to increase the altitude of the craft’s subsequent orbits. But if it is less dense, they may actually fly Cassini even closer to the planet on its final two passes, allowing it to collect close-up data on the atmospheric conditions.

“It’s long been a goal in planetary exploration to send a dedicated probe into the atmosphere of Saturn, and we’re laying the groundwork for future exploration with this first foray,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.

During the close flybys, Cassini is expected to take high-resolution images and collect data on Saturn’s auroras, temperature and vortexes at the planet’s poles.

The flybys will be a lead-in to Cassini’s dramatic finale, which will begin Sept. 11 with a pass by Titan that will bend the ship’s orbit. Cassini will plunge into the planet four days later.

The ship’s scientific instruments will be operating, but once it gets close to the planet, the atmospheric density will be so…

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