Requiem for a space probe

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Requiem for a space probe

On Sept. 15, the NASA spacecraft will take its final, fateful plunge through Saturn's rings. Instead, Cassini will be configured to run only those instruments that can sense the planet's near-space environment, such as its magnetic field, or that can sample the chemical composition of its gases. That's when NASA guided Cassini into an orbital path that took it, for the first time ever, between Saturn and its rings.

"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. The huge outer "E" ring forms from the icy plumes that spray from the unexpectedly active Enceladus. The spacecraft showed the complexity of the planet's famous rings and documented a giant storm circling Saturn for the better part of a year.

It will enter the atmosphere at 6:31 a.m.

Cassini's team is reconfiguring the spacecraft to send back scientific data in "near real time".

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has only a few more hours to live. "It will radiate across the solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone".

Cassini also carried the Huygens probe, which landed on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, in 2005 and sent data about the moon's surface and atmosphere to Cassini for 72 minutes before the signal was interrupted by the horizon. The cost of the mission stands at GBP2.9 billion ($A4.8 billion). While many other options were considered - such as "parking" the spacecraft in orbit around Saturn - they didn't want to risk Cassini colliding with any of Saturn's moons. There are fascinating images of geysers shooting from Enceladus's south pole, attractive images of Saturn's rings (including one with Saturn's shadow falling on them), and a zoomed-in view of Epimetheus (another of Saturn's moons). In order to protect potentially habitable moons orbiting Saturn from being contaminated with terrestrial microbes, NASA has ordered Cassini to destroy itself.

Its mission extended twice, Cassini's findings transformed scientists' understanding of Saturn, its rings and its moons.

Together the instruments delivered a wealth of data that scientists will be analysing for a long time to come. The final dive on Friday is a dramatic conclusion to this unique, long and scientifically valuable goodbye.

"The world will be watching and waiting for that bittersweet moment when NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) mission control announces "loss of signal", and we'll know that Cassini's final call home has been made".

NASA released a statement in honor of Cassini's last flyby of Titan, the giant moon of Saturn, which took place on September 11.

Launched in 1997, Cassini has been touring the Saturn system since arriving there in 2004.

Cassini also found liquid on the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Among the classes of missions eligible for this competition were those to study the "ocean worlds" of Enceladus or Titan, or Saturn itself.

The craft was launched 20 years ago, and is now running out of fuel. We have new books coming out about Saturn, the rings, the magnetosphere, so many new things Cassini has discovered. As it parachuted down through the moon's atmosphere, Huygens captured images of surprisingly Earth-like features such as shorelines and river systems. The Cassini mission has given us answers to a lot of the outstanding questions that we had about this atmosphere - showing it to be similar to our own, with temperatures and pressures at Titan's surface meaning that methane can condense to a point where it creates clouds, and falls as rain.

Scientists are gearing up for the spectacular fiery grand finale of one of humanity's most ambitious and successful space missions.

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