Today, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will pass TitanSaturn’s icy moon—one last time before entering the final stage of its life. Cassini is now running out of fuel, and NASA has planned a risky but exciting grand finale for the spacecraft that is orbiting the Saturn for the past 13 years.

History of Cassini

Launched in 1997, Cassini—the 22-foot-high, 13-foot-wide spacecraft—took seven years to reach Saturn in 2004. Since then, the spacecraft has been orbiting the planet and sending data to Earth for scientists to analyze. In 2005, Cassini witnessed its European traveling companion, Huygens, land on Titan.

For the past 13 years, the school-bus-sized Cassini has been busy collecting and sending data about Saturn and its icy moons. The spacecraft has sent thousands of detailed images of the ringed planet, leading scientists to make some of the most exciting discoveries about our solar system as well as Saturn and its moons.

Cassini’s final journey

According to NASA, Cassini has completed its life cycle, and now it is the time for its life to end. On April 22, Cassini will change its course to embark on a new path around Saturn. Once it flies past Titan, there will be no turning back for the spacecraft. It will start a new journey towards the 1,200-mile-wide gap between Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings.

Cassini will be moving at a speed of 70,000-plus mph during the final phase of its route, allowing scientists to have a deeper understanding of Saturn’s mysterious rings and shedding light on how these rings were formed, what is their mass and how old they are. These rings were first spotted in 1610 by Galileo and are believed to be made of 99 percent ice.

Since Cassini is running out of fuel, NASA will sooner or later lose the ability to maneuver the spacecraft. However, NASA wants to ensure that Cassini doesn’t reach Saturn’s moon Titan or Enceladus whose lakes could be harboring alien life. If the spacecraft reaches these moons, it could contaminate them microbes, and NASA would not like that to happen in any case.

The safest option would be to send Cassini towards Saturn, where it will eventually burn in Saturn’s atmosphere and get destroyed.

NASA has planned twenty-two crossings for the spacecraft until September 15 when Cassini will finally vaporize in Saturn’s atmosphere. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California is managing all the operation of Cassini, but a major concern for the team is the accuracy of computer models of Saturn’s rings. If the models are not very accurate, Cassini could face BB-size material. Even if the models are accurate, scientists are anticipating lots of lightweight impacts for the spacecraft from extremely tiny particles, like smoke. In any case, the team expects the spacecraft to reach its final destination on September 15—Saturn.