NASA's Cassini spacecraft begins last close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan

NASA's Cassini spacecraft begins last close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan

Following a final close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan, Cassini will leap over the planet's icy rings and begin a series of 22 weekly dives between the planet and the rings.

Cassini, which arrived at Saturn in July 2004, has been a worthy successor to Voyager, no slouch in racking up some 4 billion space miles, circling Saturn and swinging on Titan's gravity again and again to launch itself on a new course toward one or another unusual moon.

Cassini will penetrate the narrow gap between Saturn and its innermost ring about once a week until September 15, when it will crash into Saturn and be incinerated. But before Cassini goes out all space-Viking-funeral-style, it has a few things to check off its interplanetary bucket list, including the closest-yet fly-by of Saturn's giant moon, Titan.

The Europa Clipper probe, which NASA plans to send to the Jupiter system in the 2020s, will fly by the moon 40 to 45 times as it orbits the Jovian world. The planet is thoroughly studied by NASA's Cassini spacecraft since its arrival in 2004.

For reporters who've followed the mission closely, writing about Cassini's discoveries and incredible images, there's an added layer of loss.

NASA said: "While it's always sad when a mission comes to an end, Cassini's finale plunge is a truly spectacular end for one of the most scientifically rich voyages yet undertaken in our solar system".

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This five-month-long farewell tour is perhaps the most dramatic and heart-wrenching of Cassini's missions. Some of Cassini's major discoveries, most recently the discovery of molecular hydrogen in Enceladus' ocean, trended on Twitter and validated extraterrestrial enthusiasts.

From a navigation standpoint, "this is an easy shot", Maize said.

The ring crossings will provide wild, closeup imagery of Saturn's clouds and rings from never-before-seen angles.

The spacecraft will dive in between Saturn and its rings to study its composition before falling into planet's atmosphere. The Encke gap - also within Saturn's A ring - is visible in the upper right of the photo. It doesn't want to shower contaminating wreckage onto these worlds that might harbor life.

"We sort of know; it's about 10.5 hours", said Prof Michele Dougherty, the Cassini magnetometer principal investigator from Imperial College, London, UK.

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