NASA’s Cassini probe begins its suicide dive through Saturn’s rings today

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 the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, eventually landing and sending back images. Cassini then continued on to study the Saturn system alone. Unfortunately, 2017 marked the beginning of the end for the probe, which was beginning to run out of fuel. On Wednesday, NASA initiated the final maneuvers for its grand finale — a series of dives through the 1,500-mile-wide 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 Cassini team lost contact with the probe after the initial dive. However, NASA expects to regain a signal on Thursday. This maneuver will be followed by 21 more flybys over the next five months, before the spacecraft heads straight for Saturn itself, plunging to its planned destruction on September 15. The suicide mission was chosen to avoid biologically contaminating Saturn’s moons, at least one of which, Enceladus, is potentially habitable.

“This planned conclusion for Cassini’s journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission’s scientists,” said project scientist Linda Spilker.

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.”

Cassini received the ultimate honor the day of the initial descent, as the spacecraft was immortalized as a Google doodle.

Article originally published on 04-06-2017. Updated on 04-26-2017 by Dallon Adams to reflect recent events.

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