The final magnificent days of Cassini

Cassini’s amazing 20-year exploration of the planet Saturn is coming to a magnificent end as the last of its fuel dwindles away. And like so many of Cassini’s other amazing feats, the spacecraft is going out in breath-taking fashion.

Saturn as viewed from Cassini. Note the polar gases swirl in a hexagonal shape. Photo courtesy of NASA.

Beginning on April 26, the craft will pass between Saturn and its rings, a narrow space merely 1,500 mile wide, in what NASA is calling its Grand Finale Dive.

The final 22 orbits of Cassini between Saturn and its rings. Photo courtesy of NASA.

In space terms, passing through so narrow a window is truly threading a needle. Cassini will attempt to make this slender pass 22 times, sending back views we on Earth unlike any others we have seen before. Then on September 15, we will bid farewell to the physical form of Cassini as it plunges into Saturn’s stratosphere and die.

The decision to let Cassini commit cosmic suicide was made for altruistic reasons. Should Cassini have been left to drift after it sputtered out of fuel, there was a chance it would have slipped into the orbit of Titan or Enceladus, two of the 62 moons of Saturn. Of all those moons, these two are thought to potentially support life. Since Cassini wasn’t sterilized before it was launched, it’s possible it could contaminate these other worlds with Earthly microbes. Instead,Cassini will go out with a bang, disintegrating into the planet it has so faithfully observed and transmitted from all these glorious years.

But Cassini will never die, for the data obtained from its explorations will live on for scientists to cull for generations to come. The public, too, will have a treasure trove of images beyond our imaginings of this astonishing planet with which we share the heavens.

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