A thrilling ride is about to begin for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Engineers have been pumping up the probe’s orbit around Saturn this year to increase its tilt with respect to the planet’s equator and rings. And on 30 November, following a gravitational nudge from Saturn’s moon Titan, Cassini will enter the first phase of the mission’s dramatic endgame.
After more than 12 years studying Saturn, its rings and moons, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has entered the final year of its epic voyage. The Grand Finale will come on 15 September 2017 as Cassini dives into Saturn’s cloud tops, where friction with the atmosphere will cause the spacecraft to burn up like a meteor.
Several recent news stories have reported that a mysterious anomaly in the orbit of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft around Saturn could potentially be explained by the gravitational tug of theorised Planet 9, existing far beyond the orbit of Neptune in our solar system. However, NASA cannot find any unexplained deviations in the spacecraft’s orbit.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has begun transmitting data and images from the mission’s 22nd and final close flyby of Saturn’s active moon Enceladus on Saturday, 19 December. Cassini has made so many breathtaking discoveries about this icy moon, its geologic activity and global ocean that lies beneath its icy crust, yet so much more remains to be done to determine if this tiny ocean world could harbour life.