Environment & Science

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft prepares for Saturn exploration ‘grand finale’

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 18 degrees above the ringplane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Aug. 12, 2013 using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 728 nanometers.
This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 18 degrees above the ringplane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Aug. 12, 2013 using a spectral filter sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 728 nanometers.
JPL / NASA

Listen to story

05:12
Download this story 2MB

Twenty years after launch, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is getting ready for the "grand finale" of its exploration of Saturn.

For the past 13 years the spacecraft has been orbiting around Saturn, collecting data about the solar system's second-biggest planet and its impressive rings and helping scientists get a better understanding of big planets.

Now Cassini is running low on fuel. In 2010, NASA decided to end the mission with a purposeful plunge into Saturn this year in order to protect and preserve the planet's moons for future exploration -- especially the potentially habitable icy moon Enceladus. Disposing of Cassini this way helps to eliminate the possibility that any hardy Earth microbes that may have survived will contaminate the moons.

Cassini’s “grand finale” is like a mission unto itself. On Wednesday, April 26, the spacecraft will make the first in a series of dives through the 1,500-mile-wide gap between Saturn and its rings.

During its time at Saturn, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean that showed indications of hydrothermal activity within moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on its moon Titan.

“There might be hypothermal vents on its sea floor and perhaps even life,” Cassini Project lead scientist Linda Spilker told KPCC’s Nick Roman. “Just the possibility that a moon in our solar system could have life is so intriguing.”

Spilker has been a part of the Cassini mission, based at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for almost 30 years, when it was first a discussion and hadn’t been named yet.  

You can see more about the Cassini “grand finale” in the video below. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xrGAQCq9BMU