Last adventure ahead for NASA's Cassini

Posted April 23, 2017

Lost in the vastness of space, the Earth appears as an insignificant pinprick of light between the mighty rings of Saturn in a new image from the Cassini spacecraft.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has detected hydrogen molecules in the geysers shooting off the moon Enceladus, possibly the result of deep-sea chemical reactions between water and rock that could spark microbial life, scientists announced Thursday. The spacecraft will pass through the 1,900 km gap in the rings on Wednesday at a speed of 1,13,000 km/h.

Cassini, launched in 1997, has begun its slingshot manoeuvre which see it orbit into Saturn's atmosphere that will cause the ship to break up upon entering.

In their mission statement, NASA said: "Cassini's Grand Finale is about so much more than the spacecraft's final dive into Saturn".

There's no turning back once Cassini flies past Titan, Maize said.

The maneuver is a prelude to Cassini's final, fatal plunge into Saturn, now set for September 15.

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"We now know that Enceladus has nearly all of the ingredients that you would need to support life as we know it on Earth", she said at a NASA news conference. Since then, the spacecraft - a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency - has been studying Saturn and its moons.

Another option would be to guide the probe further out into space, but Nasa believes sending it to its destruction will yield far more scientific discoveries.

Cassini will penetrate that formerly inviolate space not once but 22 times, about once a week until September 15, when it will crash into Saturn and be incinerated.

An accurate mass reading could help scientists solve a long-standing puzzle: How old are the rings, and where did they come from? A cosmic dust analyzer on Cassini will scoop up ring particles and analyze them.

Cassini will have the best views ever of Saturn's poles, as it skims its surface. "We discovered that Europa's plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly", says William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Near mission's end, Spilker said, "we're actually going to dip our toe" into Saturn's atmosphere, sending back measurements until the last possible moment.

Here we are if you zoom in just a little more.