Published: Tue, September 12, 2017
Science | By Cecil Little

Cassini makes final flyby of Titan before death plunge

Cassini makes final flyby of Titan before death plunge

Cassini zoomed within 73,974 miles (119,049 kilometers) of Titan Monday (Sept. 11) in a flyby created to lower the probe's orbit enough to ensure that it will crash into Saturn's thick atmosphere as planned on Friday, NASA officials said. The Saturn system has been Cassini's home for 13 years, but its journey will end on 15 September. This flyby is being referred to informally as "the goodbye kiss" by mission engineers, since it is providing the gravitational push necessary to send the spacecraft into Saturn's upper atmosphere, where it will burn up.

"Cassini has been in a long-term relationship with Titan, with a new rendezvous almost every month for more than a decade", said Earl Maize, the Cassini project manager at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States.

The phrase relates to Titan's gravity pushing the craft toward its final mission - a dive straight into Saturn's atmosphere.

All told, the spacecraft made hundreds of passes over Titan during its 13-year mission.

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When the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004, the planet's northern hemisphere, seen at the top here, was in darkness, just beginning to emerge from winter.

Titan, which is 3,200 miles (5,150 km) wide, is also thought to possess a subsurface water ocean.

Because the probe has so little fuel left, scientists made a decision to end the mission this way to avoid the spacecraft someday impacting one of Saturn's moons, at least two of which are potentially habitable for microbes.

As per NASA, Cassini is scheduled to make contact with Earth on September 12 at about 6:19 pm PDT (9:19 pm EDT).

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Cassini's revelations about Titan have been some of the most significant discoveries in the entire mission.

Artist depiction of Huygens lander touching down on the surface of Saturn's largest moon Titan.

The spacecraft's fateful dive is the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives (begun in late April) through the gap between Saturn and its rings. This phase began with a flyby of Titan that took it to the gateway of Saturn's' F-ring, the outermost and perhaps most active ring around Saturn.

With this view, Cassini captured one of its last looks at Saturn and its main rings from a distance. It even revealed previously-undiscovered moons, such as Methone, Pallene and Polydeuces.

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So long and best wishes, Cassini! We'll all miss you when you go!

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