Cassini’s 13-Year Saturn Mission to End Friday

Prepare to say goodbye to Cassini.

In the early morning hours of September 15, NASA’s 13-year mission exploring Saturn and its moons will come to an end as the spacecraft deliberately dives into Saturn’s atmosphere and plunges itself into the planet.

Even then, Cassini will transmit new data about the planet’s composition as long as its antenna remains pointed toward Earth, with the assist from small thrusters. No spacecraft has ever been so close to Saturn.

“You can think of Cassini as the first Saturn probe,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist.

The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer will act as the “nose” of the spacecraft, directly sampling the composition and structure of the atmosphere — something that can’t be done from orbit, said Hunter Waite, team lead for the spectrometer.

It will also investigate the “ring rain” phenomenon discovered by NASA’s Voyager mission in the early 1980s, where it appeared that the rings were raining down material on the planet and causing changes in the atmosphere. The spectrometer will attempt to investigate what material is from the rings and what material is part of the atmosphere.

But contact will quickly be lost once the spacecraft enters Saturn’s atmosphere at a high speed. About two minutes later, Cassini will burn and disintegrate completely — any traces of it will melt due to the heat and high pressure of the giant planet’s hostile atmosphere.

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SOURCE: CNN, Ashley Strickland