Launched in 1997 and now finally running low on fuel, Cassini is drawing ever closer to its demise, but first -- a spectacular finale. The spacecraft will duck through the gap between Saturn and its rings 22 times before spiraling out of control and vaporizing in the sky above Saturn this September.
The JPL-managed spacecraft will enter the final phase of its mission in August when it makes a series of "ultra-close'' passes through Saturn's upper atmosphere, followed by a final plunge into the planet. Cassini will make the first of five close flybys of Saturn at 9:22 p.m. Sunday.
"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn's other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like," said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape."
In late 2016, the Cassini spacecraft began its new mission's orbits, which were coined the Grand Finale. The spacecraft went high above Saturn's poles and flew around the planet's F ring a total of 20 times. It then moved on to orbit around Saturn's moon Titan and Saturn's innermost ring. The spacecraft was designed to measure the planet's gravitational and magnetic fields, determine its ring mass, sample the atmosphere and ionosphere around it, and capture the last views of Enceladus, another one of Saturn's moons.
Here's a glimpse at the images Cassini has collected throughout its mission: