It's the Beginning of the End for Cassini Mission to Saturn

Later this month Cassini will begin its new five-month mission, where the team will direct it into the orbit of Titan, one of Saturn's moons, and use it as a slingshot to send the spacecraft into the narrow space between Saturn's atmosphere and its rings.

According to NASA, the spacecraft will follow a series of orbits that bring it between Saturn and its rings until finally it will plunge into the planet's atmosphere and die.

During this period, Titan's gravity will bend Cassini's flight path, causing its orbit to shrink until it passes between the planet and the inner edge of its rings. Scientists are hoping to learn more about Saturn's internal structure throughout these crucial final months, along with insights into how its rings were formed.

However long Cassini lasts, "the grand finale will be spectacular", said project scientist Linda Spilker, also with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

On September 15, Cassini will make its suicidal charge into the atmosphere.

Cassini began its incredible mission to Saturn back in 1997, reaching the ringed planet in 2004.

By 2017, Cassini will have spent 13 years in orbit around Saturn, following a seven-year journey from Earth.

The probe's final orbits are a full mission on their own.

"The only choice was to destroy it in some controlled fashion and that's where the Grand Finale came in", Maize said.

"This is truly discovery in action to the very end".

Cassini was launched in October of 1997, taking nearly seven years to reach Saturn.

During the daring ring dives, Cassini will be closer to the planet than ever before. Cassini is the fourth mission to visit Saturn, a legacy that started with the Pioneer 11 flyby in 1979 and continued with Voyager 1 (1980) and Voyager 2 (1981).

As the spacecraft plummets into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15, it will keep its antennas firing toward Earth as long as possible, sending back important data.

"Getting this close to the rings and the planet, that is a once in a life time experience for a scientist like me", Spilker said.

Cassini had also made its mark in the planning for other missions, added Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division. Some of these moons-like Enceladus with its underground water oceans and Titan with its methane lakes and rivers-could potentially be home to primitive extraterrestrial life, and we can't risk contaminating them with the microbes on Cassini. Just to start with, he said, the upcoming Europa Clipper mission (scheduled for launch in the 2020s) would use an approach similar to that which Cassini used to study Titan.

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