Cassini is in the final year of its epic mission, and is taking a rare close look at Saturn's rings in the coming weeks. The spacecraft is in the midst of performing 20 "ring-grazing orbits" that will allow for the best views of them since Cassini's arrival in 2004. The maneuvers began in November and run through April.
"[W]e expect to see the rings, along with the small moons and other structures embedded in them, as never before," Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said in a statement. "The last time we got this close to the rings was during arrival at Saturn in 2004, and we saw only their backlit side. Now we have dozens of opportunities to examine their structure at extremely high resolution on both sides."
Following completion of the ring orbits, Cassini will perform unprecedented dives between Saturn and its rings between April and September. Then, on September 15, Cassini will make a suicidal plunge into Saturn itself to protect icy worlds like Enceladus from the small chance of Cassini crashing into and contaminating their surfaces.
But before that, Showalter points out, Cassini will provide more insights on what is happening within the Uranus system, even though the spacecraft is surveying a completely different planet. The wobbles in Saturn's narrow rings appear to move in similar ways that Uranian rings do, for example.
But there are still several mysteries that may take another Uranian mission to resolve.
For example, images from Voyager 2 depicted dust rings surrounding the main ring system of. Then, when Uranus reached its equinox (closest point in its orbit) in 2008, observations from the Keck Telescope imaged the rings when they were edge-on from Earth, making it easier to identify the presence of any dust. It appears that the dust has shifted 3,100 miles between the two observations, Showalter said. The reason for the shift remains poorly understood.
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Another open question is the role that the moons Cornelia and Ophelia play in shepherding the outer ring of Uranus - a phenomena also seen around Saturn. But the rings around Uranus are more difficult to observe right now because the planet is in an area of the sky with fewer stars, Showalter said, meaning the planet remains obscure more than it did in the 1970s and 1980s.
Showalter has been very busy in the past few years working on both the New Horizons mission, which passed by Pluto in 2015, as well as Cassini. He says he hopes to pull out some older data on Uranus soon to learn more about the planet's ring system, and to provide some insight for whenever a spacecraft does visit the Blue World again.
Image: Artist's impression of the Cassini spacecraft examining Saturn's rings, which is part of the final phases of Cassini's mission this year. Image via NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory - Caltech