U.S. spacecraft to take slingshot dive inside Saturn's rings

Saturn's moon Enceladus may hold life- just not very interesting life

The image will be the last time that Earth is viewed from Saturn, with Cassini now embarking on its final stages of its mission which will se the ship plunge to its death.

While another pass at Titan (the craft's 127th) will provide more details about the moon, and perhaps even find its "magic island", the visit serves another goal: The close proximity to Titan's gravity will warp Cassini's orbit slightly, bringing it from outside the planet's rings to just inside.

"That last kiss goodbye", as project manager Earl Maize calls it, will push Cassini onto a path no spacecraft has gone before - into the gap between Saturn and its rings. It's treacherous territory. Even a speck from the rings could cripple Cassini, given its velocity.

Mission scientists know that as Cassini passes through the 1,500-mile-wide gap, it could collide with the rocks that make up the rings.

In 2004, NASA, in a partnership with the European Space Agency and Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (the Italian Space Agency) launched their space probe Cassini to explore the Saturn System.

But after a decades-long Saturnian sojourn, the spacecraft is running out of fuel - so on April 23rd, it will embark on its Grand Finale mission before plunging into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15th. Cassini will then repeat this dive 22 more times-or about once per week-before finally falling into Saturn on September 15.


Saturn's rings are made up of countless icy particles and boulders up to a metre across in size.

To Cassini will go the credit for discovering what many astronomers think is the most likely place to find evidence of life beyond Earth. Scientists can't say with absolute certainty where Saturn's innermost ring ends, so Cassini will hug the planet, sailing above its cloud tops at a height of just 3,000 kilometers. The crash was planned by NASA in order to avoid contaminating Saturn's moons, locations that are believed to be harboring alien life. Scientists hope to gain additional insights to help them determine whether the feature is waves, bubbles, floating debris, or something else entirely.

We live on a mote of dust.

NASA said: "No other mission has ever explored this unique region". Near mission's end, Spilker said, "we're actually going to dip our toe" into Saturn's atmosphere, sending back measurements until the last possible moment.

NASA and its spectacular space hardware often spend so much time checking out our planetary neighbors that we forget Earth offers some pretty cool photo ops as well.

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