VIDEO: NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft, Saturn Mission Prepares for Ring-Grazing Orbits – SpaceCoastDaily.com
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft launched in 1997
ABOVE VIDEO: Now in its final year of operations, on Nov. 30, 2016, NASA’s Cassini mission will begin a daring set of ring-grazing orbits, skimming past the outside edge of Saturn’s main rings. Cassini will fly closer to Saturn’s rings than it has since its 2004 arrival.
(NASA) – A thrilling ride is about to begin for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
Engineers have been pumping up the spacecraft’s orbit around Saturn this year to increase its tilt with respect to the planet’s equator and rings. And on Nov. 30, following a gravitational nudge from Saturn’s moon Titan, Cassini will enter the first phase of the mission’s dramatic endgame.
Launched in 1997, Cassini has been touring the Saturn system since arriving there in 2004 for an up-close study of the planet, its rings and moons. During its journey, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean within Enceladus and liquid methane seas on Titan.
Between Nov. 30 and April 22, Cassini will circle high over and under the poles of Saturn, diving every seven days — a total of 20 times — through the unexplored region at the outer edge of the main rings.
“We’re calling this phase of the mission Cassini’s Ring-Grazing Orbits, because we’ll be skimming past the outer edge of the rings,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
“In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ringplane, so in a sense Cassini is also ‘grazing’ on the rings.”
On many of these passes, Cassini’s instruments will attempt to directly sample ring particles and molecules of faint gases that are found close to the rings. During the first two orbits, the spacecraft will pass directly through an extremely faint ring produced by tiny meteors striking the two small moons Janus and Epimetheus.
Ring crossings in March and April will send the spacecraft through the dusty outer reaches of the F ring.
“Even though we’re flying closer to the F ring than we ever have, we’ll still be more than 4,850 miles (7,800 kilometers) distant. There’s very little concern over dust hazard at that range,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.
The F ring marks the outer boundary of the main ring system; Saturn has several other, much fainter rings that lie farther from the planet. The F ring is complex and constantly changing: Cassini images have shown structures like bright streamers, wispy filaments and dark channels that appear and develop over mere hours.
The ring is also quite narrow — only about 500 miles (800 kilometers) wide. At its core is a denser region about 30 miles (50 kilometers) wide.
Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits offer unprecedented opportunities to observe the menagerie of small moons that orbit in or near the edges of the rings, including best-ever looks at the moons Pandora, Atlas, Pan and Daphnis.
Grazing the edges of the rings also will provide some of the closest-ever studies of the outer portions of Saturn’s main rings (the A, B and F rings). Some of Cassini’s views will have a level of detail not seen since the spacecraft glided just above them during its arrival in 2004.