NASA has finally revealed the endgame for Cassini before we bid farewell to the spacecraft forever — in what the agency is calling the Grand Finale.
Cassini has been studying Saturn for 13 years, giving scientists a wealth of knowledge about the ringed planet. Among the most notable findings: the discovery of icy plumes on the moon Enceladus; a complex system of waterways on the moon Titan and data raising the specter of prebiotic life; visuals of a great storm in the northern hemisphere of Saturn; and the discovery of giant hurricanes at the ringed planet’s poles.
Between April and September 2017, it will do an extremely close and dangerous flyby of Titan then dip into the planet’s rings and begin a series of 22 weekly dives in the seemingly empty region between the planet and its rings, a region that has never been explored before.
In these final months, Cassini will build a detailed map of Saturn’s gravitational and magnetic fields, which scientists hope will finally reveal the true speed of its rotation. It will also sample icy particles in the rings to determine their chemical makeup and, finally, it will deliver ultra-close-up images of the planet’s rings and clouds.
Then, on September 15, Cassini will plunge into the depths of Saturn’s lower orbit, transmitting atmospheric data until it burns to crisp like a meteor and its dust becomes one with the planet — a beautiful, and insightful, ending for the beloved spacecraft.