Cassini embarks on 'grande finale' mission through Saturn's rings

NASA Saturn Mission News Conference Live Stream: Cassini 'Grand Finale' Preview

Astronomer Fred Watson, from the Australian astronomical observatory, said the Cassini mission was one of the most successful NASA missions ever.

But after spending almost 20 years in space, Cassini is running out of fuel-instead of risking an unintended crash into one of Saturn's 62 moons, NASA has made a decision to end Cassini's mission by plunging it into the planet's atmosphere.

Cassini has been studying the Saturnian system for 13 years on a quest to understand its complex system of more than 60 moons, the structure and material makeup of its rings, and the atmosphere of the planet itself.

And, all the while, it will transmit data from several instruments until the signal is finally lost.

NASA will provide more details at a briefing at 3 p.m. ET. Cassini is the fourth mission to visit Saturn, a legacy that started with the Pioneer 11 flyby in 1979 and continued with Voyager 1 (1980) and Voyager 2 (1981). "This is truly discovery in action to the very end", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at Nasa Headquarters in Washington.

"Back in 2010, we decided that we'd use every last kilogram of propellant to explore the Saturn system as thoroughly as we could", he said.

On another moon, Titan, Cassini found rivers of liquid methane and yet more organic chemicals, which Green said raised the question of "a different potential life environment" that does not require water or a DNA-based system.

In the months leading up this this dramatic conclusion, though, the craft will carry out a plan that is 'in many ways, like a whole new mission, ' according to NASA.

On top of this, the craft will obtain the closest views yet of Saturn's clouds and inner rings.

Researchers are preparing to update the probe's final scientific instructions. Project scientist Linda Spilker said Cassini could help solve the mystery of the rings' origin. "We would never take a flagship mission on that kind of course at any other time in the mission except when it's about to end", Maize said.

As part of the so-called "grand finale", Cassini will orbit a previously unexplored region between Saturn and its rings 22 times.

Since then, it has been exploring not only the planet, but also its moons: Enceladus and Titan. It'll be a struggle to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth, but if it can do that final task, it'll send back data on Saturn's atmosphere before it's destroyed.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004, is about to begin the final chapter of its remarkable story this month.

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