Cassin began its "Grand Finale" in April, and the first fruits of new science from that curtain call are already sprouting, NASA scientists said during today's news briefing.
For the last few months, Cassini has been looping through Saturn's inner ring system and sampling the top of the planet's atmosphere, which is "like dipping our toe in Saturn's atmosphere, in preparation for the final plunge," Spilker said during the news briefing.
From those initial tastes of Saturn's atmosphere, Cassini scientists are already finding "incredible, intriguing information" about how the material from Saturn's ring system mixes with the upper layers of the planet's atmosphere. On Sept. 15, the probe will plummet to depths of up to 9,300 miles (15,000 kilometers).
"By having in-situ sampling of the atmosphere, we can directly measure things like the hydrogen-to-helium ratio," Spilker said. Both Jupiter and Saturn consist largely of hydrogen and helium, but the ratios of these two elements can help scientists learn about how and when those planets formed, as well as the nature of the solar system at that time.
"We can directly measure composition of… constituents at a very, very low level in the atmosphere — things that would be much harder to see from a distance with remote sensing and spectroscopy," she said.