It’s the beginning of the end for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. On April 21, the spacecraft made its final close approach to Saturn’s moon Titan and will now begin its last set of 22 orbits around Saturn until it takes its death plunge in September.
After the close approach that gave us Cassini’s last image of Earth, the craft sent images and data back to Earth for scientists to study the hydrocarbon seas and lakes on Titan’s north polar region.
The gravity from Titan bent Cassini’s path and set Cassini up for the Grand Finale: instead of simply flying by Saturn’s rings, on April 26 the spacecraft will start a series of 22 dives between the rings and the planet and will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere right on schedule on September 15.
“With this flyby we’re committed to the Grand Finale,” Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL, said in a press release. “The spacecraft is now on a ballistic path, so that even if we were to forgo future small course adjustments using thrusters, we would still enter Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15 no matter what.”
Cassini will be out of contact during its first dive between planet and rings, but will make radio contact with Earth the next day, when scientists expect the images and data to start coming in.