Cassini’s ring dives have begun

With its last flyby of the giant moon Titan, Cassini grabbed a gravity assist and slipped into an orbit that ventures closer to Saturn than any previous orbit.  This is the final phase of the Cassini mission, focusing on Saturn’s rings and the enormous gas giant itself.  This final mission begins with 22 orbits dipping almost to the F ring.  These orbits are much smaller than previous orbits, so they go much more quickly; the orbit will be adjusted again in April to set up another 22 orbits, these dipping inside the rings.  Those orbits will wrap up in September of 2017, when Cassini will plunge into Saturn itself.  It’s hard to believe it, but by that time, Cassini will have been in space for nearly 20 years.

Some of the first images from Cassini’s latest, closest periapsis (perikrone?) have been released.  Here’s the mysterious Hexagon from Saturn’s north polar region:

And here’s one of many raw ring images sent back, this one acquired December 5:

Stay tuned for spectacular new images as Cassini moves ever closer!


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