US spacecraft to take slingshot dive inside Saturn's rings

Cassini Saturn Mission

And in recent years, one of the greatest reminders of this is the volume of research and images sent back to Earth from NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which first entered Saturn's system in 2004.

Because Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus might be habitable, the probe will be flown into Saturn's atmosphere to avoid any possible contamination of these moons with bacteria from Earth that might have somehow survived on the spacecraft.

Project manager Earl Maize said that it will look very easy to navigate the spacecraft through the rings, but it can actually scrape off the inner rings in one of its ever-changing orbits. It's treacherous territory. Even a speck from the rings could cripple Cassini, given its velocity.

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Between April and September 2017, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will undertake a daring set of orbits that is, in many ways, like a whole new mission.

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

In the years that it has been studying the Saturnian system, the probe has flown by the haze-shrouded world on 126 occasions - each time getting a kick that bends its path towards a new region of interest. At present, the spacecraft is performing flybys of the planet Saturn, making its closest approaches to the rings, with the spacecraft presently performing its final plunge. "That's us. All of us, in Cassini's last view of Earth, a billion miles away".

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The other major outstanding question is the age of Saturn's rings. That information will help scientists learn how the rings formed. It won't be easy to say goodbye, but thanks to the probe, Saturn's family album is bursting with remarkable images that will forever remind us the tenacity of this unbelievable machine and the vision and work of those who kept it operating for so many years. On Sept 15, 2017, it will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, collecting and returning data as long as possible. Space compels us because it forces us to think outside this myopic view of ourselves - not in a "Dust in the Wind" way, but in the sense that we're tiny flecks of star stuff lucky to be members of something so vast and incredible. "We discovered that Europa's plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly", says William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

"If the rings are a lot more massive than we expect, perhaps the rings are old-maybe as old as Saturn itself", Spilker said.

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