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Going Out in a Blaze of Glory: Cassini’s Grand Finale

Bob Eklund Looking Up Column

Bob Eklund
Looking Up Column

With the conclusion of the international Cassini mission orbiting Saturn and its moons set for Sept. 15, 2017, the spacecraft is poised to soon begin a thrilling two-part endgame.

Cassini will enter the first part of this denouement on Nov. 30, 2016, when the spacecraft begins a series of 20 passes just beyond the outer edge of the main rings. These weekly loops around Saturn are called the F ring orbits, and they send the spacecraft high above and below the planet’s poles.

Cassini’s final phase—called the Grand Finale—begins in earnest in April 2017. A close flyby of Saturn’s giant moon Titan will reshape the spacecraft’s orbit so that, instead of passing outside the rings, it passes through the gap between the rings and the planet. The spacecraft is expected to make 22 plunges through this gap—an unexplored space only about 1,500 miles wide—beginning with its first dive on April 27.

The mission will come to a dramatic end on Sept. 15, 2017, after more than 13 years studying Saturn, its rings and its moons. On that day, Cassini will dive into Saturn itself, returning data about the chemical composition of the planet’s upper atmosphere until its signal is lost, after which the spacecraft is expected to burn up like a meteor.

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