Cassini probe aims for gap between Saturn and its rings

Cassini Saturn Mission

Cassini probe aims for gap between Saturn and its rings

A new image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows planet Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.

After 12 years of exploration and incredible discoveries Cassini's fuel reserves are nearly empty and scientists don't want to risk it crashing on either Titan or Enceladus in case there is life on either moon that might be contaminated. The spacecraft will pass through the 1,900 km gap in the rings on Wednesday at a speed of 1,13,000 km/h.

Cassini launched in 1997, flying by Venus and Jupiter on its way to Saturn, where its captured close-up images of the planet and its rings.

After decades in space and a journey of more than 4.1 billion miles, NASA's Cassini orbiter is set for its grand finale.

The Titan flyby will give Cassini a gravity assist, altering the spacecraft's trajectory and moving its orbit from just outside Saturn's rings to the narrow area between the rings and the giant planet's upper atmosphere.

"At the end of the day we have to all be grateful for the generations of science we've received from Cassini", science journalist Shannon Stirone told Gizmodo. Since then, the spacecraft - a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency - has been studying Saturn and its moons.

"I wouldn't be a bit surprised if some of the discoveries we make with Cassini might be the very best of the mission", said Linda Spilker, the mission's project scientist. They want to have the first-ever sampling of the atmosphere of Saturn and the particles that come from the main rings. The Encke gap - also within Saturn's A ring - is visible in the upper right of the photo.

This extraordinary world is dominated at northern latitudes by great lakes of liquid methane. The crash was planned by NASA in order to avoid contaminating Saturn's moons, locations that are believed to be harboring alien life. While we may be an insignificant spec of cosmic dust, we've done an OK job of hanging in there. "We're going to start with bacteria and, if we get lucky, maybe there's something that's larger".

Cassini will now plunge to its ultimate end for the good of mankind as it begins a suicide descent towards Saturn.

During the dives, Cassini will measure how much ice and other materials are in the rings and determine their chemical composition.

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