The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) Cassini spacecraft was launched on 15 October 1997 and cruised through interplanetary space for seven years before arriving at Saturn on 30 June 2004. The Cassini spacecraft carried the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) Huygens probe, which landed on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, on 14 January 2005. Since then, Cassini has been performing a series of missions in orbit around Saturn, returning spectacular images and collecting scientific data on the ringed planet and its many moons.
In 2017, Cassini is performing its Grand Finale in a highly elliptical polar orbit around Saturn. The geometry for this orbital flight path is shown in the following diagram.
In the first phase of the Grand Finale (grey orbits in the above diagram), which is underway now, Cassini’s orbit crosses the plane of Saturn’s equatorial ring system just outside the F-ring (there are just two rings outside of the F-ring: G and E). Later in 2017, Cassini’s polar orbit will be adjusted to cross the plane of the ring system insider the innermost D-ring (blue orbits). From there the spacecraft will gradually descend toward Saturn in a region that has never before been explored. The mission will end when Cassini is destroyed somewhere in Saturn’s atmosphere (orange orbit). This is scheduled to occur on September 15, 2017 at 5:07 a.m. PDT.
NASA’s Cassini mission website is at the following link:
You’ll find a NASA fact sheet on the Grand Finale here:
You can follow the countdown to the final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere and also review the entire mission timeline and other resources here:
A few Grand Finale images taken during recent ring-grazing orbits past the F-ring are shown below. The source of these three images and captions are: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
The above image, taken 16 January 2017, shows Saturn’s moon Daphnis (5 miles, 8 kilometers across), which orbits within the 26 mile (42 km) wide Keeler Gap (between the F and A rings). The gap appears foreshortened because of the viewing angle. The little moon’s gravity raises waves in the edges of the gap in both the horizontal and vertical directions.
Waves created by Daphnis are visible in this wider-angle view of the ring system. The F-ring is the bright, narrow ring crossing the center of the image. Since the moon moves in and out of the ring-plane, and closer to and farther from the rings’ edges as it orbits, the waves it makes change over time.
13 April 2017 Update – Cassini’s close-up view of Saturn’s moon Pan
In early March, Cassini imaged Pan, which is one of Saturn’s innermost moons. As you can see in the following photos, this small moon (diameter of 221.7 miles, 35 km) has a most unusual shape. It isn’t known if the ridge circling the moon is solid, or a loose aggregation of particles with a very steep slope enabled by the moons weak gravity.
The NASA announcement and more photos of Pan are at the following link: