The Cassini spacecraft nears its voyage end - and a 70000 miles per hour crash

Cassini plunge

Due to the travel time for radio signals from Saturn, which changes as both Earth and the ringed planet travel around the Sun, events now take place there 86 minutes before they are observed on Earth.

At about 6:50 a.m.PDT this morning (9:50 a.m. EDT/1350 GMT), Cassini turned its antenna away from Earth and began taking its last images of the Saturn system, adding to a collection of more than 450,000 images gathered throughout the life of the spacecraft.

Dr Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said: "The Cassini mission has been packed full of scientific firsts, and our unique planetary revelations will continue to the very end of the mission as Cassini becomes Saturn's first planetary probe, sampling Saturn's atmosphere up until the last second". "But September 15th will be a bittersweet ending to a mission that has fascinated us as scientists and enthralled the public with images and new findings for many years".

The dive that Cassini is now performing is the very last part of its Grand Finale which included 22 spectacular dives through Saturn's iconic rings. Heat and friction created by the fall will cause Cassini to break apart, and its components to vaporize, only 2 or 3 minutes after it enters Saturn's atmosphere.

Cassini's crash into Saturn will also protect moons like Titan and Enceladus, which researchers think could possess environments fit to host life.

Many discoveries by Esposito and his UVIS team involve Saturn's rings-made up of ice, rocks and moonlets as large as Mount Everest-the age of which have been debated for decades. The spacecraft's fateful dive is the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings. "A lot of the things we thought we knew about Saturn are more complicated than we originally had imagined". "And we've left the world informed, but still wondering".

Other UVIS team members from CU Boulder include Ian Stewart, George Lawrence, William McClintock, Alain Jouchoux, Greg Holsclaw, Emilie Royer, Anya Portyankina and Michael Aye. "We have even watched the rings changing over the course of this mission".

"Cassini has been in a long-term relationship with Titan, with a new rendezvous almost every month for more than a decade", said Cassini project manager Dr. Earl Maize, of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Cassini pioneered that whole concept", Jim Green, head of NASA's planetary science division director, said at the news conference. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter. LASP students control four NASA satellites from campus, and about 120 undergraduate and graduate students working are there on different aspects of flight projects, ranging from engineering and spacecraft operations to data management and science analysis.

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