US spacecraft to take slingshot dive inside Saturn's rings

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On April 12, Cassini captured the jaw-dropping image of Earth from 870 million miles away and through the the rings of Saturn.

"It really represents a capstone finding for the mission", said Cassini's project scientist, Linda Spilker, noting that the spacecraft has been circling Saturn for more than a decade. It's treacherous territory. Even a speck from the rings could cripple Cassini, given its velocity.

On September 15, the NASA Cassini spacecraft will head towards its fateful plunge into Saturn and will beam back data from several instruments until it loses contact with Earth.

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The Cassini spacecraft launched on October 15, 1997 and arrived in the Saturn system in June 2004. There will be no turning back once it flies past Titan, and embark on a new path around Saturn. Cassini will fly to within 979km of Titan's surface on Friday, before beginning a series of plunges between the planet and its innermost ring, a gap of just 2,400km. "The plumes on Enceladus are associated with hotter regions, so after Hubble imaged this new plume-like feature on Europa, we looked at that location on the Galileo thermal map". Since then, the spacecraft - a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency - has been studying Saturn and its moons.

Cassini's last mission called the "ring-grazing orbits" that began last November will come to an end soon.

Cassini's particle detectors will sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn's magnetic field.

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Cassini will penetrate that formerly inviolate space not once but 22 times, about once a week until September 15, when it will crash into Saturn and be incinerated. New ocean world discoveries from Cassini and Hubble will help inform future exploration and the broader search for life beyond Earth. Scientists can't say with absolute certainty where Saturn's innermost ring ends, so Cassini will hug the planet, sailing above its cloud tops at a height of just 3,000 kilometers. The team at NASA are keen to take a closer look, 'We don't understand what the structures would be and there maybe no way for us to tell remotely, until we actually get into these oceans, ' said Dr Voytek.

During the dives, Cassini will measure how much ice and other materials are in the rings and determine their chemical composition.

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