It’s almost time to say goodbye to a dear friend: NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.
The final and most daring chapter of Cassini’s story begins on Wednesday, April 26, when it will commence its dives in and out of the 2,400-kilometer-wide (1,500-mile-wide) gap between Saturn and its rings. It will do this 22 times before burning up high above the skies of Saturn on September 15.
The team back at mission control are currently in the process of making the final checks to ensure everything goes as planned. They are scheduled to upload the sequence of commands to the spacecraft on April 11.
Throughout these terminal plunges, the spacecraft will gather a never-before-seen vantage point and collect valuable data about this relatively unknown region. Using this information, they will also gather insights into how other giant planets form and evolve.
"Cassini's grand finale is so much more than a final plunge," Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said in a statement. "It's a thrilling final chapter for our intrepid spacecraft, and so scientifically rich that it was the clear and obvious choice for how to end the mission."
The spacecraft was launched in 1997 and has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Cassini’s fuel is running low and its time is calling, but during its tenure it has captured a huge amount of data on the ringed planet and its many moons, as well as some stunning images.
"This planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists," Spilker added. "Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life."
In celebration of this long-lived spacecraft's final days, NASA's JPL has also released this animated homage (below) detailing its final mission and some of the amazing work it has achieved. Be prepared for goosebumps and maybe the odd tear.
Godspeed, brave chunk of metal.