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Cassini Orbiter’s Shootout is “Grande Finale”

Blaze of Glory or Grande Finale

Scientists decided to give the space orbiter, Cassini, a final shootout in a blaze of glory as it ends its paparazzi- styled swing through Saturn’s rings. Usually a space mission with a camera doesn’t have any “grande finale” and tends to phase out slowly due to a failure in the battery life or an unforeseen system break down.

Cassini final photos

Cassini Orbiter Swings into its final photo shoot through Saturn’s rings

In this case since its launch in 1997, Cassini has served its purpose of sending back thousands of high-quality photos and avoided crashing into any ring debris. It’s a good track record that offered scientists much more than they expected. Remember Voyager? It was doomed to a short life and it’s still talking to Earth as it rides the solar winds and leaves our Solar System!

NASA scientists held their breath each time Cassini flashed through a spin around the rings of Saturn. This time — going  for the “Grand finale”– as its being called, the spacecraft will purposely dive through the debris rings of Saturn to capture as many photos before hurtling to the planet’s surface.

Retrograding 22 Times

It’s flight path includes 22 swings in and out of the rings as it retrogrades down to the planet. As long as it keeps flashing photos, it will afford a better view of the ring debris as well as the closest view of an alien surface of Saturn. No probe has really done this before.

Saturn rings of debris

Rings of Saturn is Cassini’s final camera shoot

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) used the Deep Space Network at Goldstone CA, (one of a group of satellite dishes communicating with distant objects in space) to pick up Cassini’s far-off signal. As it dove through the gap, Cassini came within 3,000 km of Saturn’s cloud tops and within about 300 km of the innermost visible edge of the rings.

“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA.

Blazing a Trail

graphic rendering of rings

Artist rendering of Cassini’s camera view

“In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare,” Green added.

Browse the latest, unprocessed images beamed back from Saturn by the Cassini orbiter. It has returned thousands of great images. here’s one of better collections.

By May 2nd, the first of these close-ups of rock, ice chunks, and other space trash caught in the belt of spinning gases, should give us the best results yet. Watch the news.

Finale in September

While we wait and hope the camera aboard Cassini has a safe flight, I can image a handful of scientists holding their breaths as each await the September delivery of its last photo download to California’s JPL facility in Pasadena.

Rusty LaGrange

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