Having studied Saturn from up close for more than 12 years, the Cassini–Huygens spacecraft is preparing to say the final goodbye as the countdown to its final death plunge has begun.
Touted as one of NASA’s most successful outer Solar System mission, Cassini has already set on its journey to get up close with previously unexplored parts of the planet’s ring. Once it is through with circling the poles, driving straight through the rings 20 times till April 22, 2017, the unmanned space probe will go on one last journey into the gas giant in a bid to ‘protect’ its moons.
The final leg of the mission, currently underway, was designed to make the spacecraft ring-grazing orbit using Titan’s gravity and orbit in an elliptical manner at an angle of nearly 60-degrees from Saturn’s ring plane.
“The first Ring-Grazing Orbit begins on Nov. 30 with a ring plane crossing five days later on Dec. 4. The spacecraft will repeat this feat 20 times, with only about a week between each ring-plane crossing. Those orbits end with the spacecraft’s final close Titan flyby, T-126 in April, at which point Cassini enters a series of even more daring Grand Finale Orbits,” wrote NASA.
Among its various achievements, Cassini also helped scientists discover two new moons – Methone and Pallene. It became the first ever spacecraft to orbit Saturn on July 1, 2014. It also helped scientists detect traces of water in the Enceladus moon.
By July 30, 2008, Cassini had already completed all its original objectives. However, NASA chose to extend the mission first by two years in 2008, and then by 6 years in 2010.