After 12 years orbiting Saturn, including multiple mission extensions, the Cassini spacecraft will soon meet its doom by plummeting into the planet it has so longingly investigated.
Launched in October 1997 and arriving at Saturn seven years later, Cassini has proven the gift that keeps on giving, operating in Saturn's orbit three times longer than originally planned. It's discovered water geysers erupting from the surface of the moon Enceladus and deposited the Huygens lander on the mysterious moon Titan to discover its vast lakes of methane.
Cassini also beamed back invaluable information about the composition and structure of Saturn, its rings, and its moons for over a decade. But the fuel is running out, so NASA will crash the spacecraft into Saturn rather than risk it impacting one of the planet's pristine, potentially habitable moons. On Wednesday November 30, Cassini will use a gravity assist around Titan to enter a set of 20 daring and close orbits that will fling the spacecraft around Saturn's poles, skirting the edges of the planet's outer rings and attempting to obtain particle samples from the rings along the way.
In April of next year, the spacecraft will adjust its orbit to fly in between Saturn and its rings, flying as close as 1,012 miles over the cloud tops for 22 more orbits. Finally, on September 15, 2017, at 8:07 a.m. ET, Cassini will make its final dive into the clouds of Saturn, transmitting its last bits of data as it burns up in the thick alien atmosphere.
Godspeed Cassini, and farewell.