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Cassini will dive between Saturn and its rings before plunging to its death

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In Cassini's final months, NASA hopes the spacecraft will offer new insight into the solar system and and Saturn's origins.

It’s been nearly two decades since the Cassini-Hyugens spacecraft launched from Earth toward Saturn, entering the ringed planet’s orbit on July 1, 2004. The Huygens lander separated on Christmas Day to dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, leaving Cassini to study the Saturn system alone.

But now Cassini is running out of fuel and NASA is preparing for its grand finale — a series of dives through the 1,500 gap between Saturn and its rings.

“No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we’ll attempt to boldly cross 22 times,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said in a press release. “What we learn from Cassini’s daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end.”

The first of Cassini’s dives will take place on April 26. This maneuver will be followed by 21 more flybys over the next five months, before the spacecraft heads straight for Saturn itself, plunging to destruction on September 15. The suicide mission was chosen to avoid biologically contaminating Saturn’s moons, at least one of which is potentially habitable.

“This planned conclusion for Cassini’s journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission’s scientists,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist. “Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life.”

During the dives, scientists hope Cassini will capture more information about the Saturn system, from the planet’s internal structure to the origins of its rings. The spacecraft is expected to take the first sample of Saturn’s atmosphere and the nearest view of the planet’s clouds and inner rings.

“Cassini’s grand finale is so much more than a final plunge,” Spilker added. “It’s a thrilling final chapter for our intrepid spacecraft, and so scientifically rich that it was the clear and obvious choice for how to end the mission.”