Cassini Is Taking The Final Five Passes Of Its Grand Finale

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The photos include close-ups of the gaseous giant, its famous rings, and its enigmatic moons - including Titan, which has its own atmosphere, and icy Enceladus, which has a subsurface ocean that could conceivably harbour microbial life.

Cassini is now flying a series of loops around Saturn that thread the gap between its atmosphere and its rings.

According to NASA, the spacecraft will orbit five last times around Saturn's upper atmosphere.

Cassini, launched in 1997, will continue making these ultra-close flybys of the planet until 15 September upon which the spacecraft will make its final, fatal descent down into the planet's atmosphere. "It's always been a goal of planetary exploration to send a dedicated probe into the atmosphere of Saturn, and we're laying the groundwork for future exploration with this first foray". The closest point Cassini will approach into its course will be between 1,010 and 1,060 miles (1,630 and 1,710 kilometers) above Saturn's cloud tops. "It will be doing science until the very last second".

The conditions are expected to rival those experienced when Cassini made a series of close passes by the Saturn moon Titan. NASA needs that fuel in order to steer the spacecraft.

The spacecraft is expected to encounter atmosphere dense enough to require the use of its small rocket thrusters to maintain stability. Upon the completion of dives, Cassini will head toward its final, devastating plunge. Data from that fly-by is being sent back to NASA today.

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One of the big mysteries the team is hoping to solve is the simple question of just how long a day is on Saturn.

The clouds on Saturn look like strokes from a cosmic brush because of the wavy way that fluids interact in Saturn's atmosphere.

The solution should come by looking for an offset between the magnetic field and the planet's rotation axis, but frustratingly all the probe's observations to date show these two features to be nearly perfectly aligned. That contradicts our understanding of magnetic fields, and makes it impossible to know exactly how long Saturn's days are. It's hard to see it go, but Cassini's legacy of discovery will live on. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini spacecraft. Image scale is 5 miles (9 kilometers) per pixel. NASA announced Tuesday that the first of five such dips into Saturn's atmosphere was successful.

Images taken using red, green and blue spectral filters were combined to create this natural-color view. Some pictures captured by Cassini.

Cassini's on-board camera took this image of Saturn on August 12. However, there are new findings daily. During that encounter, Titan's gravity bended Cassini's orbit around Saturn and shrunk it slightly, so that instead of passing outer edges of the rings, the spacecraft dived inside the rings.

At the ripe old age of 19, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will die next month. On Sept. 15, it will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.2 million miles (2 million kilometres) from Titan.

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