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Published: Thu, September 14, 2017
Research | By Jennifer Evans

Cassini's mission to come to fiery end Friday in Saturn's atmosphere

Cassini's mission to come to fiery end Friday in Saturn's atmosphere

Cassini has spent the past 20 years in space, including 13 years studying Saturn and its moons, and is now running out of fuel.

As per NASA, Cassini is scheduled to make contact with Earth on September 12 at about 6:19 pm PDT (9:19 pm EDT).

The distant encounter is referred to informally as "the goodbye kiss" by mission engineers, because it provides a gravitational nudge that sends the spacecraft toward its plunge that will end in Saturn's upper atmosphere, Dyches said.

Lead Image: In August 2009, NASA's Cassini spacecraft became the first robotic emissary from Earth to witness an equinox at Saturn, when the sun was shining directly on the giant planet's equator.

On September 11, Cassini made one last close flyby of the hazy moon Titan, a odd world with a thick atmosphere and lakes of hydrocarbons that could potentially host some kind of freakish "vinyl life". The investigation of the 5,150km-wide moon has been one of the outstanding successes of the Cassini mission.

Little was known about the moon before the spacecraft sent the small Huygens robot to its surface in 2005. This hydrocarbon rains from Titan's orange sky and runs into huge seas at northern latitudes. It mapped sand dunes that scientists think are made of solid water ice.

Just a few days before it is due to plummet into the fiery atmosphere of Saturn on its self-destruct mission, Cassini has completed its final flyby of the moon Titan.

"We study the stars because they tell us where we came from, and inspire us to imagine just how far we might go".

The idea is to use only those instruments at the end that can sense Saturn's near-space environment, such as its magnetic field, or can sample the composition of its gases.

Cassini will beam back images until Thursday night, and it will keep pinging us with its position until the wee hours of Friday morning, when its antenna will turn away from Earth for the last time.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate, said: "Cassini has transformed our thinking in so many ways". This is expected to take place at 7:54 a.m. EDT (12:44 p.m. BST).

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a joint endeavour of Nasa, and the European and Italian space agencies.

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