Cassini's swan song: 13-year Saturn mission ends Friday

This illustration by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory highlights some numbers in the final journey Cassini will take this week as it prepares to crash into Saturn on Friday

This illustration by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory highlights some numbers in the final journey Cassini will take this week as it prepares to crash into Saturn on Friday

NASA scientists, on September 13, briefed reporters on the last days of the Cassini spacecraft that ends its 13-year mission to Saturn in mid-September, transmitting data until the final moment before it plunges into the ringed planet's atmosphere.

With its solid-state data recorder empty, Cassini will shift into what Maize called "bent-pipe" mode - all of the data flowing into the orbiter will be relayed to Earth nearly immediately.

"That will enable sampling instruments, particularly the ion and neutral mass spectrometer, to get data as deep into the atmosphere as Cassini will permit it", he said.

It will also investigate the "ring rain" phenomenon discovered by NASA's Voyager mission in the early 1980s, where it appeared that the rings were raining down material on the planet and causing changes in the atmosphere.

The unmanned spacecraft once known as Cassini-Huygens, now simply Cassini, is set to become a fireball early Friday morning as it enters Saturn's atmosphere, ending a journey that began for many scientists well before the spacecraft's October 15, 1997 launch.

"Even though we'll know that, at Saturn, Cassini has already met its fate, its mission isn't truly over for us on Earth as long as we're still receiving its signal", Maize said.

"It will fight, it will fight and it will fight", said Earl Maize, Cassini's project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge.

"Cassini-Huygens is an extraordinary mission of discovery that has revolutionized our understanding of the outer solar system", said Alexander Hayes, assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell University.

I think there's been a lot of excitement about the information Cassini has sent back not just about Saturn but actually about those moons, moons like Titan and Enceladus.

How did scientists communicate with Cassini? Three of Saturn's moons - Tethys, above, Enceladus, second left, and Mimas, seen from the Cassini spacecraft. In order to protect potentially habitable moons orbiting Saturn from being contaminated with terrestrial microbes, NASA has ordered Cassini to destroy itself.

Cassini is the only spacecraft to have ever orbited Saturn, and it spent the previous five months exploring the massive planet and its rings.

There's little chance telescopes will see the 20-year, US$3.26-billion mission come to an end. The final dive on Friday is a dramatic conclusion to this unique, long and scientifically valuable goodbye.

In January 2005, the tiny Huygens probe parachuted down through Titan's thick nitrogen and methane atmosphere and landed on a pebble-strewn surface with the consistency of wet sand.

Milestones in Cassini's final dive toward Saturn in September 2017. Why is the program ending now after 13 years?

They provided the probe's senses for studying the dust, gas and magnetic fields around Saturn and its moons as well as capturing optical and radar images at visible and invisible wavelengths. Cassini has provided some impossibly great photos of Saturn and its moons over the past decade, and it's gone above and beyond what was originally planned for it.

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