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NASA’s spacecraft prepares for daring Saturn encounter before plunging to its death

by Brandon Russell | August 12, 2017August 12, 2017 9:00 am PST

Ahead of its date with destiny, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will perform a series of ultra-close passes through Saturn’s upper atmosphere, using vital instruments to make observations of the planet’s temperature, auroras, and more.

Beginning August 14, Cassini will dive through Saturn’s rings and come within just 1,010 miles of the planet, providing scientists with an unprecedented look at our solar system’s sixth planet.

NASA said it expects to use Cassini’s thrusters during the flyby because Saturn’s atmosphere is so dense. However, scientists aren’t sure how much power will be required in order to keep Cassini steady, so the first flyby will serve as a test.

“As it makes these five dips into Saturn, followed by its final plunge, Cassini will become the first Saturn atmospheric probe,” explained Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist. “It’s long been a goal in planetary exploration to send a dedicated probe into the atmosphere of Saturn, and we’re laying the groundwork for future exploration with this first foray.”

If the atmosphere is less dense than anticipated, Cassini might get even closer in future flybys, relying less on the thrusters. If it’s more dense than anticipated, Cassini won’t get as close, using the thrusters to push it further away.

NASA is planning five more close flybys (beginning August 14) before the intrepid spacecraft plunges toward Saturn to its death in September, where it will provide scientists with near real time feedback until going dark.

“The spacecraft will break up like a meteor,” NASA said, adding that it’s been a “rewarding journey” for Cassini.

You can see some of the breathtaking images Cassini has taken of Saturn in the gallery below.

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Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...