Cassini Spacecraft Reaches Saturn’s Rings


Cassini Spacecraft Reaches Saturn’s Rings

The rings of Saturn were named in the order in which they were discovered.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Cassini has been travelling in our solar system for more than 19 years. The spacecraft has had one hell of a ride, with over 300,000 images taken, seven moons discovered and an entire ocean on Enceladus. Cassini also discovered the methane seas on Titan, among other things, and since it’s been orbiting around Saturn since 2004, it’s now ready for its final manoeuvres.

“We’re calling this phase of the mission Cassini’s Ring-Grazing Orbits because we’ll be skimming past the outer edge of the rings,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ring plane, so in a sense, Cassini is also ‘grazing’ on the rings.”

Cassini is expected to take at least 20 dives within the rings themselves as of April next year, collecting dust particles, gases and molecules which are found all around there. This is the closest any spacecraft has ever made it to Saturn and it’s rings. When it first launched from Earth, Cassini wasn’t expected to do as well as it did, and accomplish as many missions as it did. But because it was so successful, NASA pushed further and further wit it. With this mission, however, Cassini is in a bit of a peril.

“I am a little unsettled by what we are going to try and do as far as the science is concerned because neither the instrument nor the spacecraft was designed to do this,” said Michele Dougherty, professor of space physics at Imperial College London and lead for Cassini’s Magnetometer.

Nevertheless, she keeps her wits about her and is confident that the spacecraft will do its job like it did for nearly two decades.

“We are going to try and understand what is going on in the interior of Saturn and we are going to try and work out how long a day on Saturn is – it is a bit embarrassing, but we still don’t know, “said Dougherty. “You use the magnetic field, which is what my instrument measures, to almost see inside the planet.”

Even if everything goes without a hitch, Cassini will still meet its end here on Saturn. After April, it will begin heading towards the gas giant and take a final plunge within it. With its final “breath”, Cassini would fulfil its mission and stand as an example of an exemplary spacecraft and an inspiration for future generations.