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NASA's Cassini probe of Saturn prepares for last plunge


At the end of these loops between the planet and its rings, the spacecraft will do a death dive into the planet.

On April 26, Cassini will start the first of 22 dives into the gap between Saturn and its rings. After almost 20 years in space-13 of those years orbiting Saturn-NASA' Cassini spacecraft begins the final chapter of its exploration. Titan's gravity will slingshot Cassini toward Saturn where it will (hopefully) pass between Saturn's upper atmosphere and the innermost D-ring.

Although models of Saturn's rings suggest the inner gap will be mainly empty, mission scientists said they assume some small particles will hit Cassini.

"This planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists", Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, said.

And, then, in mid-September, Cassini will make its final plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, burning up in the process, but being ensconced forever in our hearts.

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.

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Cassini's Grand Finale is occurring this year because the spacecraft has been so active and so prolific, Maize added.

This mission does come with some risk, which is why NASA waited until the very end before undertaking it. The spacecraft is expected to take the first sample of Saturn's atmosphere and the nearest view of the planet's clouds and inner rings. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on August 12, 2013 using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 728 nanometers. It will use its remaining fuel trying to point its antennae to Earth on the way, sending back data, before atmospheric compression destroys the probe, scattering it across Saturn's skies in a matter of minutes.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency.

'Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life'. NASA made a decision to incinerate the probe to ensure that it doesn't careen into, and potentially contaminate, Titan or the fellow Saturn moon Enceladus, both of which may be capable of supporting life.

The aim of the spacecraft was to give the closest, most detailed look at Saturn's rings and its moons.

During its time circling Saturn's system Cassini has gathered a wide array of data, as well as dropping the probe, Huygen, on Titan. Cassini's wanderings there will be its final act.

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