NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been hanging out in space for two decades, with well over a decade of that time spent exploring the space around Saturn, taking scientific readings, and teaching humanity more about the ringed planet than we had ever known before. Now, the aging spacecraft has nearly depleted the fuel reserves it uses for navigation and corrections, and so NASA is ending the mission the best way it knows how: By making the craft dive repeatedly through the space between Saturn and its own rings until the time comes to crash Cassini right into the planet itself. This is Cassini’s Grand Finale, and it’s going to be absolutely awesome.
On April 26th, NASA will send Cassini on its first dive, bringing it closer to Saturn than the planet’s rings, and far closer to the planet than it has ever dared to venture. It will dive again and again and again, making a total of 22 close shaves of the planet, sending back extremely valuable data and photos the entire time.
Once it has completed its daring adventure, on its last orbit it will cruise right into Saturn’s atmosphere where it will, NASA says, burn up and essentially disintegrate. As the craft melts into nothing it will still be sending back data until its final digital breath.
To say that Cassini’s overall journey has been a success would be a massive understatement. The craft’s initial mission was wrapped up just four years after it arrived at Saturn, and it has spent much of the last nine years performing tasks that were essentially bonuses. For Cassini to become one with Saturn is really the only fitting end to this story, and its expected end of mission will occur on September 15th.