Cassini Grand Finale: NASA Saturn Mission's Daring End

Sadly, Cassini can't soldier on forever; it will run out of fuel -- but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Continue reading →

Like all good things, epic space missions must come to an end. But in the case of NASA's Cassini mission around Saturn, it's going to end in dramatic style.

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After a decade in orbit around the ringed gas giant Cassini has revolutionized our understanding of Saturn's rings, moons and dynamic atmosphere. It's even put Earth in its place, as a tiny blue dot in the vast expanse of space.

Sadly, Cassini can't soldier on forever; it will run out of fuel (used by its thrusters for adjustments during orbit) - but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Until now, mission managers have tried to protect the spacecraft from any orbital risks in the interest of prolonging Cassini's life, but as the mission is now coming to a close, they can afford to be a little less careful while looking for awesome science opportunities. Starting in 2016, Cassini will be commanded to carry out a "daring set of orbits that is, in some ways, like a whole new mission," writes NASA in a recent news release.

PHOTOS: Cassini's Festive Tour of Spectacular Saturn

Known as "proximal orbits," the spacecraft will fly high above Saturn's poles and then fly outside the planet's narrow F-ring. This orbital path will take it past the icy moon Enceladus, allowing another passage through the moon's fascinating water-rich plumes that blast into space.

Then, its trajectory will evolve to make a dive between the innermost ring and the planet 22 times. Flying through the ring plane will increase the potential for impacts with ring dust, ice grains and even large rocks, so until now such an orbital profile has been avoided at all costs.

What happens next? Well, assuming it doesn't hit anything in the meantime, to avoid an end-of-mission collision with Titan or Enceladus - two Saturnian moons with biological potential that scientists do not want to contaminate with any hardy Earth-borne bacteria that may be hitching a ride on the probe - Cassini will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, burning up in a fiery final act.

PHOTOS: Moons of Saturn

Now that the mission is entering a very final and distinct phase of its decade-long Saturn odyssey, NASA has asked for mission-naming ideas. After the Cassini's primary mission, it was renamed "Cassini Equinox" (2008) then "Cassini Solstice" (2010) after each mission extension, which related to the changing seasons on Saturn. Now, after considering suggestions from 2,000 members of the public, this final act will be known as the "Cassini Grand Finale."

"We chose a name for this mission phase that would reflect the exciting journey ahead while acknowledging that it's a big finish for what has been a truly great show," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

So we still have a couple of breathtaking years as Cassini slowly approaches its most intimate encounter with Saturn yet - returning unique photographs and historic science as it zooms through Saturn's rings.

We can expect some dramatic views of Saturn's rings as Cassini begins "proximal orbits" about Saturn.

This Christmas season,

NASA's Cassini mission got into the festive spirit

, capturing some breathtaking views of the beautiful ringed gas giant Saturn. Along with Saturn and its majestic rings, views of the Saturnian moons Titan, Enceladus and Rhea were also shared, showcasing some of the system's most fascinating mysteries such as Titan's south polar vortex, ring resonances and Saturn's hexagonal northern jet stream. Shown here, in a wide angle shot of Saturn's north pole, the hexagon is clearly visible.

As winter approaches the southern hemisphere of Saturn, a familiar blue hue returns to the gas giant's clouds.

In this view of Saturn's rings, the "Titan Ringlet," embedded within the Colombo Gap in the center of this Cassini photo, can be seen. The Ringlet is slightly oval shaped with its axis always pointing toward Titan. This is one example of the gravitational moon-ring resonances that shape Saturn's rings.

The moons Titan and Rhea line up from Cannini's perspective. Titan is Saturn's biggest moon that plays host to a thick, hazy atmosphere. Crater-riddled Rhea, the second largest, is barren in comparison.

The stacked clouds over Titan's south polar vortex are lit up by the twilight sun.

Titan's hydrocarbon lakes become visible through the moon's atmosphere as Cassini uses a special filter to cut through the haze.

A beautiful ring is created as Cassini observes Titan's dark side, the moon's thick atmosphere scattering sunlight.

A half crescent Enceladus, Saturn's icy moon.