Cassini on course into Saturn's atmosphere

Image of Saturn and artist's rendering of Cassini probe

This morning Australia time, the NASA spacecraft will dive into Saturn at a speed of 113,000 kilometres per hour.

As it dives - transitioning from a Saturn orbiter to the very first Saturn atmosphere probe - Cassini will beam home information, which will be received by the ground stations of NASA's Deep Space Network.

Even then, Cassini will transmit new data about the planet's composition as long as its antenna remains pointed toward Earth, with the assist from small thrusters. No spacecraft has ever ventured so close to the planet before.

"That will enable sampling instruments, particularly the ion and neutral mass spectrometer, to get data as deep into the atmosphere as Cassini will permit it", he said.

His team will also investigate the phenomenon of "ring rain", when water vapor and ice grains from the rings descend into the gas giant's atmosphere.

Cassini is firmly set on its crash course into Saturn, so it shouldn't need any help reaching its final destination.

By 3:30 a.m., Cassini will be gone. "It will radiate across the solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone", Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement.

Why was Cassini's mission significant?

Today, AP employs the latest technology to collect and distribute content - we have daily uploads covering the latest and breaking news in the world of politics, sport and entertainment. Also, Cassini's high-resolution cameras will take their last look across Saturn system and will send back pictures of Titan and Enceladus.

Mission planners decided that vaporising the spacecraft in Saturn's atmosphere was the best way to keep it from accidentally contaminating Enceladus and Titan - two of the solar system's most promising candidates for hosting extraterrestrial life. And it has also captured some attractive and never seen before images of the ring planet and its moons, through its lenses.

Earth as seen from orbit above Saturn taken by Cassini
Image of Saturn and artist's rendering of Cassini probe. Earth as seen from orbit above Saturn taken by Cassini

But Friday's dive will be like no other.

It is known as the Cassini-Huygens mission because it delivered ESA's Huygens probe to Titan - the "first descent and landing on a world in the outer solar system", according to NASA.

Within a year of arriving at Saturn, Cassini captured images of plumes of water vapor jetting out from near the moon's south pole.

On Oct. 15, 1997, Cassini lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and began its seven-year journey to Saturn.

Cassini gazed toward the northern hemisphere of Saturn to spy subtle, multi-hued bands in the clouds there.

"Even though we'll know that, at Saturn, Cassini has already met its fate, its mission isn't truly over for us on Earth as long as we're still receiving its signal".

NASA recreated a Cassini image of a backlit Saturn using a collage of about 1,600 photos of people waving at the ringed planet as part of social media campaign in 2013. "It's one of the things we expected to learn, but have not". Serendipitous observations showed that icy jets erupt from Enceladus. Scientists now know Titan has rivers, lakes and seas filled with liquid methane and ethane.

"The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful, and it's coming to an end", NASA program scientist Curt Niebur said.

"This mission is special, and it's making it more hard to say goodbye because it's lasted so long", said Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science Director Jonathan Lunine.

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