The Cassini orbiter is reaching the final stages of its life and scientists are drinking in the last bit of information which the craft can provide about Saturn, its moons, and rings. The ship made its first dive across the plane of the rings but still 91,000 kilometers above the clouds of the only ringed planet in our solar system. The craft passed through the faint ring which was created by two moons of the planet Janus and Epimetheus.
Due to the risk of contamination by dust, the engine cover was closed, but the spacecraft minutely observed the rings using its radio equipment.
Cassini is a collaborative venture between NASA, ESA, and Italian Space Agency. The spacecraft has beamed back incredible data about methane clouds on Saturn, and it also found deep canyons on Saturn’s biggest moon, Titan. Though the planet was not imaged during the closest rendezvous of the craft with the planet, future ring grazing missions will film the rings in detail.
The craft received an extra nudge from Titan and is now in its final stage of this important journey which began way back on October 15th, 1987 when it was launched by a Titan IV rocket from Cape Canaveral.
The craft had an eventful history passing Venus on April 26, 1998, when it was as close as 176 miles from the hot planet. It made another flyby on June 24, 1999, from a distance of 6052 kilometers. The flyby was more for gravitational assistance which flung the craft deep into space to reach Jupiter on December 30, 2000, and then it was inserted into the Saturn’s orbit on July 1, 2004. It has since been exploring the Saturn and its other family members.
The craft has endured the vagaries of space and is now low on fuel. Scientists have decided to let the orbiter crash into the depths of the planet Saturn once the craft has completely exhausted its fuel which is believed to happen on September 15, 2017. The craft will keep sending back data as long as it endures the tumultuous atmosphere of Saturn.