NASA launch KAMIKAZE mission to solve mystery of Saturn's Rings

Tomas Mccoy
April 23, 2017

Cassini's unprecedented views of Saturn and its 62 moons are widely regarded as some of the most sublime images from space - it's shown us methane lakes on Titan, the gaps in Saturnian rings and even pasta moons that seem too delicious to be real.

Cassini launched in 1997, flying by Venus and Jupiter on its way to Saturn, where its captured close-up images of the planet and its rings. Grand finale is a set of final 22 plunges during which the spacecraft will repeatedly dive through the narrow gaps between the Saturn and its rings. Twenty-two orbits later, the probe will tumble into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15. But before Cassini goes out all space-Viking-funeral-style, it has a few things to check off its interplanetary bucket list, including the closest-yet fly-by of Saturn's giant moon, Titan. NASA's official website says the image shows the southern Atlantic Ocean of Earth, but it's impossible to see it clearly because of the distance. It will also capture detailed images of the surface of the moon Titan using its strong radar, according to NASA.

Cassini's last mission called the "ring-grazing orbits" that began last November will come to an end soon. Cassini's fuel tank is practically empty, so with little left to lose, NASA has opted for a risky, but science-rich grand finale. Then, it will turn its attention to Saturn's atmosphere, sniffing with a mass spectrometer and sending data back to Earth in real-time.

Cassini uncovered the hydrogen during its final close flyby of Enceladus in 2015, when it dove deeper than ever through its plumes of vapor and particles. Scientists said the 20-year space journey of the mission changed the way the world looked at the moons.

From a navigation standpoint, "this is an easy shot", Maize said.

The other major outstanding question is the age of Saturn's rings.

"Imagine the pictures we're going to get back of Saturn's rings", said project scientist Linda Spilker. "If Cassini can measure the total mass of the rings, this will help us understand how the rings formed and how long they've been around".

The mission's scientists aim to know and examine Saturn's internal structure and the origins of the rings.

The mission is set to end on September 15, with the spacecraft crashing into Saturn.

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