Artist’s concept of Cassini’s final plunge into Saturn.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is on final approach to Saturn, following confirmation by mission navigators that it is on course to dive into the planet’s atmosphere on Friday, September 15, 2017.
Cassini is ending its 13-year tour of the Saturn system with an intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn’s moons – in particular Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity – remain pristine for future exploration. The spacecraft’s fateful dive is the final beat in the mission’s Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings. No spacecraft has ever ventured so close to the planet before. The mission’s final calculations predict loss of contact with the Cassini spacecraft will take place on September 15 at 7:55 a.m. EDT (11:55 UTC; translate to your time zone). Cassini will enter Saturn’s atmosphere approximately one minute earlier, at an altitude of about 1,190 miles (1,915 km) above the planet’s estimated cloud tops (the altitude where the air pressure is 1-bar, equivalent to sea level on Earth).
For the next couple of days, as Saturn looms ever larger, Cassini expects to ...