Cassini’s grand finale: Saturn’s best friend embarking on its final mission

NASA’s fabled Cassini mission is about to come to an abrupt but long-coming end.

The craft, which has been a part of Saturn’s sky since 2004, will finally end its celestial bucket list by self-destructing in the most bad-ass way possible — nosediving into Saturn itself.

“On Wednesday, April 26, the spacecraft will make the first in a series of dives through the 1500-mile-wide (2400-kilometre) gap between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission’s grand finale,” NASA reveals.

Incidentally, no other spacecraft has ever done this before. If that isn’t enough, Cassini will attempt to cross through the rings 22 times. It’s the spacecraft equivalent of playing a game of chicken on a national freeway.

cassini saturn april 2017 nasa jpl-caltech space science institute

Just one of the many gorgeous snaps of Saturn Cassini is responsible for. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“What we learn from Cassini’s daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end,” NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate explains.

NASA isn’t just ending the mission out of boredom though.

Cassini became a member of Saturn’s sky in 2004, and will finally end its mission 13 years later

Cassini, which launched in 1997 and has been circling Saturn and exploring its maze of moons since 2004, is running low on fuel. The agency also pondered crashing the craft into one of the planet’s 62 moons, but ultimately decided not to contaminate them for possible future missions.

Instead, after the craft’s many passes through the planet’s ring network, it will barrel head-first into the gas giant itself on 15 September, ultimately ending its epic odyssey.

*Sniff*

Yes, this is a suicide mission, but it’s not in vain. NASA notes that valuable information about Saturn’s composition, atmosphere and conditions will still be sent back to Earth even during Cassini’s nosedive.

“Cassini’s grand finale is so much more than a final plunge,” Linda Spilker, Cassini’s project scientist admits.

“It’s a thrilling final chapter for our intrepid spacecraft, and so scientifically rich that it was the clear and obvious choice for how to end the mission.”

We wish you well, Cassini.

Feature image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Andy Walker
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