NASA’s Cassini Probe Begins Its ‘Grand Finale’ Through Saturn’s Atmosphere

An anonymous reader quotes Space.com:
After orbiting Saturn for more than 13 years, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is getting ready to say goodbye. On Monday (August 14), Cassini made the first of five passes through Saturn’s upper atmosphere, kicking off the last phase of the mission’s “Grand Finale.” After completing those five dives, Cassini will come back around again one last time, plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15. This will be a suicide maneuver: Cassini will burn up in the ringed planet’s thick air, turning into a meteor in the Saturn sky…

Cassini’s radar will be able to look into the atmosphere and see features as small as 16 miles (25 km) wide, about 100 times smaller than what it could see from its usual orbital positions. The Grand Finale will include one final swing by Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, on Sept. 11. Titan’s gravity will slow Cassini’s orbit around Saturn and bend its path to send the spacecraft toward its September 15 encounter with the planet… Cassini will keep sending back data on September 15 until it gets to an altitude where atmospheric density is about twice what it encountered during its final five passes, NASA officials said. At that point, mission controllers will lose contact with the probe because its thrusters won’t be able to keep Cassini’s antenna pointed toward Earth; there will simply be too much air to push against.

The second dip happens this weekend, and NASA has created a special web page tracking Cassini’s current location for its final 28 days.


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