End is nigh for Nasa's Cassini as it heads for crash landing on Saturn
Nasa’s Cassini mission to Saturn is entering its final week. On 15 September, it will dive towards the planet and burn up in its atmosphere. Nasa have called it the grand finale.
Cassini is one of the most ambitious space missions. It is a collaboration between Nasa, ESA and the Italian space agency, Agenzia Spaziale Italiana. The spacecraft, launched on 15 October 1997, took seven years to travel through the solar system to Saturn, which lies about 10 times further from the Sun than Earth.
Soon after arrival, the spacecraft jettisoned ESA’s Huygens lander, which touched down on Saturn’s moon Titan on 14 January 2005. Titan is thought to be similar to Earth before life began and Huygen’s readings showed tantalising hints of chemistry that might have led to the formation of life. It also provided the first pictures of the moon’s rugged landscape.
Cassini went on to discover lakes and even seas of liquid methane on Titan. At Enceladus, another moon, Cassini found a global ocean under the ice crust that may sustain life.
The spacecraft also studied giant storms on Saturn and discovered hurricanes at both poles. It has revealed natural radio waves from inside the planet whose origin remains mysterious. And, in studying the famous rings of Saturn, which are made up of dust, pebbles and rock, the mission provided insight into how planets and moons form.
Extended time and again from the original four-year mission, Cassini is entering the final stages. As it plunges into the atmosphere, it will continue to beam back data and images until the very end.
Photo credit: NASA