Having returned a vast number of incredible images of Saturn, her rings and her moons, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is reaching the final stage of its marathon mission. As such, and with the help of over 2,000 members of the general public, mission operators have selected a fitting name for the final maneuvers of the iconic spacecraft.
Cassini was launched in October 1997, and having made a round of Venus, Earth and Jupiter, arrived at its primary target of Saturn in 2004. June 30th saw the spacecraft celebrate its 10th year studying the ringed giant, something it has done so well and with such success and reliability that the orbiter has been granted several extensions beyond its initial mission duration.
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Its most recent and possibly final mission is set to start late next year, and will see Cassini performing a challenging set of complicated maneuvers. The spacecraft will initially ascend high above Saturn's north pole, passing close to the planet's F ring. During this phase, the orbiter will study water geysers active on the moon Enceladus before passing between the planet and its rings, repeating the process 22 times.
It is hoped that these proximal orbits undertaken in the final stage of Cassini's mission will allow NASA scientists to unlock more of Saturn's secrets, including its internal structure, gravity, and magnetic fields. Once this final duty is complete, it is likely that Cassini's mission controllers will manipulate the spacecraft's orbit, allowing it to burn up in the atmosphere of the planet that it spent its life capturing in such majestic detail.
Cassini's images have been a source of untold inspiration for a generation of would-be astronomers, and so it seems fitting that NASA would reach out to the public when selecting the title for its final set of maneuvers. Based on the input of over 2,000 members of the public, mission operators selected the moniker "Cassini Grand Finale."
Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet propulsion Laboratory stated regarding the selection, "We chose a name for this mission phase that would reflect the exciting journey ahead while acknowledging that it's a big finish for what has been a truly great show."
Source: NASAView gallery - 8 images