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NASA's Cassini probe to begin 'Grand Finale'

NASA's Cassini probe to begin 'Grand Finale'

As the Cassini probe enters its final mission this month, NASA is reminiscing over some of the spacecraft's greatest achievements thinking about what its fiery death later this year will look like as it plunges into headfirst into Saturn's atmosphere.

Cassini's grand finale will be to perform 22 weekly dives between Saturn and its rings - an intricate and risky mission.

"What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve", NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement.

Before Nasa's Cassini probe captured the most detailed images of Saturn ever seen, it dropped its companion Huygens on the planet's largest moon, Titan.

As one of the scientists on the project put it: "Cassini's grand finale is so much more than a final plunge".

Cassini will begin its first dive through Saturn's famous rings on April 26.

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By 2017, Cassini will have spent 13 years in orbit around Saturn, following a seven-year journey from Earth.

Cassini is nearing its final days - and final orbits. "Cassini will still end up as planned, but we'll get less science", Maize said.

Launched on October 15, 1997, atop a Titan IVB rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Cassini made a gravity-assist flyby past Venus (1998 and 1999), Earth (1999), and Jupiter (2000) before arriving in orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004. That includes collecting data that could hint at Saturn's internal structure and the origins of its rings and the first-ever sample of Saturn's atmosphere.

"Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life". After that, the Cassini will take a plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn, explode and die. He added that mission team members are confident that Cassini will encounter only the smallest particles in the ring gap, and the probability of losing the spacecraft to an impact with something bigger is "less than 1 percent".

The animation below offers an overview of how Cassini's final months will play out.

With its instruments toward Saturn, Cassini will capture images and data about the giant hurricanes on the planet's north and south poles, and the massive and enigmatic hexagon at its northmost reaches. Saturn's unique environment has acted like a natural laboratory, demonstrating how moons are formed and destroyed - findings that can be scaled up to better understand how planets formed around the sun and, perhaps, around other stars, scientists have said. The agency also pondered crashing the craft into one of the planet's 62 moons, but ultimately decided not to contaminate them for possible future missions.

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