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Cassini Spacecraft To Touch Saturn’s Rings

First Posted: Nov 30, 2016 02:40 AM EST
Cassini Spacecraft Prepares To Enter Saturn's Orbit
In this handout photo provided by NASA, Saturn appears in an image returned by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft.
(Photo : NASA/Getty Images)

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for the past 12 years, taking among the most detailed images of the giant planet ever captured. However, it is time for the spacecraft to retire -- and it will do so with a last hurrah.

According to The Smithsonian, it is set to get up close and personal with Saturn's rings -- the mysterious things that are considered its most well-known feature. Scientists already know that they are made of rocks and dust, but there is actually little that is known past those.

With increasingly powerful technology, new details have been uncovered, such as faint and wispy outer rings, and even tiny little moons spinning around the giant. Because of this, NASA's spacecraft is going to snap never-before seen photos of the planet's rings and objects.

Cassini project scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement that they will be skimming past the outer edge of the rings, adding that they have two instruments that can sample particles and gasses along the ring's plane. Thus, the spacecraft is said to be "grazing" them.

NASA reported that the Cassini will be circling high over and under Saturn's poles, diving every seven days for a total of 20 times over the entire period through the unexplored regions of the outer edge of the main rings.

In its last hurrah, Cassini is expected to pass to as close as 1,012 miles above the clouds as it dives through the narrow gaps between Saturn and its rings, before it ends its mission by plunging to the planet's atmosphere on Sep. 15. Still, at this point, some preparatory work is needed, and Cassini is scheduled to perform a brief engine burn during its first super-close approach by Dec. 4.

It will also observe Saturn's atmosphere during the ring-grazing phase to determine how far it hovers above the planet. The data will be important for helping mission engineers determine the proximity at which they can safely fly the craft.

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