Environment & Science

JPL's Cassini probe's final year will end with an epic photo shoot

An image of Saturn’s ring taken by JPL’s Cassini space craft.
An image of Saturn’s ring taken by JPL’s Cassini space craft.
NASA/ JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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Mark your calendars. Thursday marks the beginning of the end for JPL's Cassini space probe orbiting Saturn.

JPL’s Cassini space craft took this image of a hexagon-shaped storm on Saturn’s north pole.
JPL’s Cassini space craft took this image of a hexagon-shaped storm on Saturn’s north pole.
NASA/ JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Exactly one year from now, the Cassini spacecraft will become a streaking flash of a meteor as it disintegrates into the atmosphere of the gas giant.

And no one is quite as excited, and as sad about that, as Linda Spilker, project scientist for Cassini.

“The countdown has begun for the Cassini mission,” she said, then paused for a moment. “That part’s hard.” 

Spilker has worked on Cassini for 30 years, so it’s tough for her to see it go — but at the same time, the scientific and photographic bounty from its final year in space will be huge.

“We’ll actually dive through a 1000-mile-wide gap between the rings and the planet,” she said. 

That up-close approach could reveal answers to long-held questions about the makeup of Saturn, which, for instance, Spilker said has a “lumpy” quality that has perplexed scientists. And we’ll see the first images ever from the inside of those rings and get the closest look anyone has had at the gas giant.

“It’s just an amazing opportunity to go into a region that no spacecraft has flown into before, and basically it’s like a brand new mission, to sort of peer into the interior of Saturn itself,” Spilker said.

An image of Saturn’s ring taken by JPL’s Cassini space craft.
An image of Saturn’s ring taken by JPL’s Cassini space craft.
NASA/ JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini probe is a joint venture between the U.S. and Italy and a number of other European countries. It was launched in 1997. It has flown past Venus, Jupiter and started its tour of Saturn in 2005.

After almost two decades in space, Cassini is running on fumes. It’s as if its gas tank warning light has gone on — and it only has a year and 125 million space miles to go.