NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn is nearing its end as the spacecraft starts to reach its last month in orbit. It will burn up like an artificial meteor in Saturn’s upper atmosphere on September 15 to mark the end of its successful space journey to the planet.
Cassini has started a series of daring and up close passes of the planet, as part of its concluding phase, to end its mission in style. The current orbit brings it high over the poles of Saturn and through the gap between the planet’s innermost ring and upper atmosphere. The close passes on the surface of Saturn will eventually lead to the spacecraft to self-destruct deep into Saturn’s upper atmosphere.
The end of the mission is “very bittersweet,” according to Jo Pitesky, Cassini project science system engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. However, he adds that the Cassini spacecraft is only doing what it is built for, which is to explore and see the mission get helpful data. He also said that the experience has been tremendously fulfilling for him and the team behind it.
On August 14, Cassini made its closest pass of Saturn yet, at around 1,000 miles or 1,600 kilometres above Saturn’s top clouds. NASA officials shared in a statement that its cameras can view the atmospheric features just 16 miles or 25 kilometres across at this distance. This view is 100 times smaller than it could see from its usual orbital positions.
However as Cassini gets even closer, it will be able to do direct measurements of the atmosphere, making it an atmospheric spacecraft in itself and the first ever to become one. Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL, said in a statement that this has “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.”