The triumphant Cassini mission to Saturn will be coming to an end on September 15, when the spacecraft dives into the planet. Running out of fuel, NASA chose to end the mission that way rather than run the risk of having the vehicle wander and ultimately land on Europa or Enceladus, potentially contaminating two moons very high on the list of possible habitable locales in our solar system.
Both the science and the images coming back from this descent are (and will be) pioneering, as they bring to an end one of the most successful and revelatory missions in NASA history.
As NASA promised, the 22-dive descent has already produced some of the most compelling images of Saturn and its rings. Most especially, Cassini has delivered the remarkable 21-image video above. The images were taken over a four minutes period on August 20 using a wide-angle camera.
The spacecraft captured the images from within the gap between the planet and its rings, looking outward as the spacecraft made one of its final dives through the ring-planet gap as part of the finale.
The entirety of the main rings can be seen here, but due to the low viewing angle, the rings appear extremely foreshortened. The perspective shifts from the sunlit side of the rings to the unlit side, where sunlight filters through.
On the sunlit side, the grayish C ring looks larger in the foreground because it is closer; beyond it is the bright B ring and slightly less-bright A ring, with the Cassini Division between them. The F ring is also fairly easy to make out.
While the Cassini team has to keep clear of the rings, the spacecraft is expected to get close enough to most likely answer one of the most long-debated questions about Saturn: how old are those grand features, unique in our solar system?
One school of thought says they date from the earliest formation of the planet, some 4.6 billion years ago. In other words, they’ve been there as long as the planet has been there.
But another school says they are a potentially much newer addition. They could potentially be the result of the break-up of a moon (of which Saturn has 53-plus) or a comet, or perhaps of several moons at different times.… Read more