Space & Innovation

Cassini Probe Begins Tango With Saturn's Rings

The NASA spacecraft's tour of Saturn and its moons is about to get a whole lot more interesting.

<p>NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI</p>

In less than 10 months, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will swan dive into Saturn, ending a 20-year trip around the ringed beauty and its entourage of moons. But before it goes, scientists plan some parting gifts.

This week, Cassini made its penultimate swing past Titan, the largest of Saturn's 62 named moons, so it could be gravitationally elbowed into a new orbit that is more perpendicular to Saturn's equator and rings.

The new path shoots Cassini through the edge of the outer ring, giving scientists unprecedented opportunities to sample ring particles, sniff surrounding gases, blast the rings with radio waves and snap some stupendous pictures.

The first pass by the F ring will occur on Sunday, with 19 more ring-grazing orbits to follow at a pace of one a week.

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For its closing act, Cassini will make a final swoop by Titan and go nearly polar around the planet so it can swoop between Saturn and the inner ring.

The journey ends on Sept. 15, 2017, when Cassini plunges into Saturn's thick atmosphere to prevent a most unlikely, but not impossible scenario: contaminating any potentially habitable moons with hitchhiking Earth microbes tenacious enough to have survived 20 years in the radioactive environment of space.

NASA plans to end the mission before Cassini runs out of fuel for its steering thrusters. But for the next 9.5 months, that's the furthest thing from scientists' minds.

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