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NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft Will Meet Its Fiery End In Saturn’s Atmosphere On Friday

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After 13 years of zooming around Saturn and its many moons, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has less than four days left at the planetary system before the probe is lost forever. Early Friday morning, Cassini will dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, eventually melting and breaking apart.

The death plunge will put an end to the spacecraft’s mission, one that has taught us more about Saturn and its moons than we ever thought possible.

This final step has long been planned by the Cassini mission team, and it’s meant to protect the Saturn system.

Two of the planet’s moons — Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean, and Titan, with lakes of methane — may have the right conditions to harbor life.

By destroying Cassini, NASA ensures the spacecraft will never accidentally wander near the moons and contaminate them with microbes that may have hitched a ride from Earth.

In April, NASA maneuvered Cassini into its final stage, known as the “Grand Finale” — a path that takes the vehicle between Saturn and its famous rings, and closer to the planet than ever before.

During these week-long orbits, the probe has been gathering some of its most crucial data yet. But the planet’s gravity will eventually get the best of Cassini after the 22nd Grand Finale orbit, pulling the spacecraft into the planet at 6:31AM ET on Friday.

The navigators have no more maneuvers to do,” Scott Edgington, the deputy project scientist for Cassini, tells The Verge. We’re guaranteed to go into Saturn, no matter what happens.

Once Cassini enters Saturn’s atmosphere, it will only be five or six minutes before the probe is taken apart. During the plunge, its instruments will be getting up-close measurements that will be sent back to Earth in real time.

All that data will probably keep researchers busy for awhile. “Some of these analyses will take years for scientists to figure out,” says Edgington. “I would expect to still hear a lot more from in the coming years.

Cassini’s destruction has been in the making for nearly a decade now. The spacecraft was launched in 1997, and it was the first probe intended to orbit and thoroughly study the Saturn system.

After arriving at the planet in 2004, Cassini dropped a probe that landed on Titan, and began mapping out Saturn’s rings and moons, among many other science tasks.

After four years, Cassini’s primary mission ended. But the spacecraft was still fully operational, and the mission team wanted to come up with ways to extend Cassini’s time at Saturn while preserving Enceladus and Titan.

It couldn’t last forever: the spacecraft only has a limited amount of fuel, and eventually the team would lose the ability to maneuver Cassini in space.

So the team came up with a number of different options: one idea was to eject Cassini from the Saturn system.

So far, those orbits have been fruitful. The mission team has learned that the gap between Saturn and its rings is relatively free of large particles, something they didn’t expect.

Plus, the researchers have gotten more in-depth measurements of the structure of Saturn’s magnetic field.

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