NASA is preparing to bring an end to the Cassini mission next week, by plunging the spacecraft down to the surface of Saturn. The death dive will mark the end of an incredible 13-year journey, which began in 1997, and has been one of the most ambitious space missions ever undertaken. It’s long been a goal in planetary exploration to send a dedicated probe into the atmosphere of Saturn, and we’re laying the groundwork for future exploration with this first foray, said Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist at JPL last month.
Affectionately known as the grand finale, Cassini has been deliberately piloted through a series of 22 dives between Saturn’s rings over the last few months. As well as flying between the rings it has dived down to 600km (1,000 miles) above Saturn’s clouds. This allowed the space agency to gather data on the chemical makeup of the planet’s atmosphere.
As well as monitoring Saturn, Cassini has also provided humankind with valuable information about its moons – most notably Titan and Enceladus. Both are believed to have vast subsurface oceans that could, potentially, harbour alien life. On September 15, NASA will send Cassini crashing into Saturn, in part to avoid any potential contamination of the moons.