NASA’s long-running Cassini space probe is set for a major manoeuvre on Wednesday when it comes within spitting distance of Saturn’s rings.
The probe will receive gravitational assistance from one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, thereafter making multiple close orbits of the planet.
“Between 30 November and 22 April, Cassini will circle high over and under the poles of Saturn, diving every seven days — a total of 20 times — through the unexplored region at the outer edge of the main rings,” NASA wrote in a blog post.
Cassini will use instruments to sample gases and particles emanating from the rings.
“On many of these passes, Cassini’s instruments will attempt to directly sample ring particles and molecules of faint gases that are found close to the rings,” the space agency wrote.
The Cassini space probe will be observing everything from Saturn’s faint rings to the planet’s smallest moons
“During the first two orbits, the spacecraft will pass directly through an extremely faint ring produced by tiny meteors striking the two small moons Janus and Epimetheus. Ring crossings in March and April will send the spacecraft through the dusty outer reaches of the F ring.”
The orbits will also allow the probe to make “unprecedented” observations of Saturn’s smaller moons, such as Daphnis, Pan, Pandora and Atlas.
Saturn’s main rings will also be a target for imaging and observation.
“The mission will begin imaging the rings in December along their entire width, resolving details smaller than 1 kilometre per pixel and building up Cassini’s highest-quality complete scan of the rings’ intricate structure.”
Fast-forward to March and Saturn will be backlit by the sun, giving Cassini the opportunity to spot details such as dust ejections from meteor impacts.
2017 will also see NASA bid farewell to the probe as part of the Grand Finale, which will see the craft dive into the planet.
Featured image: NASA/JPL/Caltech