Cassini readies for its grand finale

Of Saturn's Moon That's Inside A Ring

So to prevent even the remote possibility of Cassini some day colliding with one of these moons and contaminating it with any hardy Earth microbes that might have survived on the spacecraft, NASA has chose to end the mission by steering Cassini into Saturn's atmosphere.

It entered the Saturn's orbit in 2004 and since then has been studying the plant, its famous rings and a number of its moons, particularly Titan and Enceladus.

"It really represents a capstone finding for the mission", said Cassini's project scientist, Linda Spilker, noting that the spacecraft has been circling Saturn for more than a decade. It's treacherous territory. A particle from the rings - even as small as a speck of sand - could cripple Cassini, given its velocity.

Mission scientists know that as Cassini passes through the 1,500-mile-wide gap, it could collide with the rocks that make up the rings.

Cassini, which arrived at Saturn in July 2004, has been a worthy successor to Voyager, no slouch in racking up some 4 billion space miles, circling Saturn and swinging on Titan's gravity again and again to launch itself on a new course toward one or another odd moon.

This flyby is also the gateway to NASA Cassini spacecraft's "Grand Finale".

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There's no turning back once Cassini flies past Titan, Maize said. In September, after 22 of these orbits, the spacecraft will dive into Saturn's upper atmosphere where it will burn up in the "Grand Finale," ending its mission to the ringed planet.

NASA on Thursday reminded the world of our station in the universe by highlighting an incredible new image of our home from deep space. The concern is whether computer models of Saturn's rings are accurate.

Cassini's last mission called the "ring-grazing orbits" that began last November will come to an end soon.

The space probe will eventually carry out a self-destruction maneuver by diving into the planet's atmosphere on September 15, when it will beam its last batch of pictures.

A year later it landed the Huygens probe on Titan, which has a thicker atmosphere than Earth, and found lakes and rivers of methane and ethane. While we may be an insignificant spec of cosmic dust, we've done an OK job of hanging in there. NASA says Cassini will continue to send back data until the signal is lost, indicating the craft has met its ultimate fate.

While the NASA scientists are slightly sad about destroying their beloved spacecraft, its death will provide more research material to scientists instead of dying into ignorance in the space.

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