THE Cassini Space Mission is coming to a spectacular grand finale with the Cassini spacecraft crashing into Saturn.
After an incredible 12 years of studying Saturn and its rings, Nasa’s Cassini mission is finally concluding its scientific voyage.
Now that the spacecraft has used up its reserves of fuel, its operators back on Earth have set it on a collision course that will see it burn out at 70,000 mph.
The Cassini–Huygens probe was first launched in 1997 with the goal of reaching Saturn by 2004, for a never-attempted-before venture.
The spacecraft has since completed several runs around the gas giant, studying its unique moons and rings.
On Friday, September 15, Cassini will enter its last flyby of Saturn, resulting in its crash into the planet.
The spacecraft was sent on this collision course in April 2017, which lasted 22 orbits and will end around 11.32am BST (6.32am EDT).
Scientists then expect to lose all contact with Cassini around 12.55pm BST (7.55am EDT).
It is costing Nasa a staggering £2.4 billion ($3.6 billion) just to crash the spacecraft, but NASA is prepared to squeeze every last opportunity out of it, assured Linda Spilker, Cassini’s project scientist.
“It’s like getting a whole new mission,” she said. “The scientific value of the F ring and Grand Finale orbits is so compelling that you could imagine a whole mission to Saturn designed around what we’re about to do.”
Cassini’s death mission officially begun in November 2016, with a series of ring grazing orbits.
During these obits, Cassini approached Saturn’s F ring within 4,850 miles (7,800 km), giving NASA an unprecedented close look at them.
The scientist explained: “The last time we got this close to the rings was during arrival at Saturn in 2004, and we saw only their backlit side.
“Now we have dozens of opportunities to examine their structure at an extremely high resolution on both sides.”
During the plunge, Cassini will continue to map Saturn’s magnetic and gravity fields, mapping them out before contact is lost with the spacecraft.
As the spacecraft enters Saturn’s atmosphere, increased air friction will quickly cause the spacecraft to spectacularly burn up – just like a shooting star.
Nasa will broadcast the entire event to the world over its educational YouTube programming on NASA TV, which you can watch here.
The mission’s final moments will be visualized with a special animation that will track Cassini’s position in space.