– The Cassini spacecraft, which launched toward Saturn in 1997, is running low on fuel.
– To avoid accidentally crashing into and contaminating a nearby moon that may harbor alien life, NASA is going to destroy the robot.
– But before Cassini perishes, it will fly between Saturn and its rings and record as much new data as possible.
For nearly three decades, researchers have worked to design, build, launch, and operate an unprecedented mission to explore Saturn.
Called Cassini-Huygens — or Cassini, for short — the golden nuclear-powered spacecraft launched in October 1997, fell into orbit around the gas giant in July 2004, and has been documenting the planet and its dizzying variety of moons ever since.
But all good things must come to an end. And for NASA's $3.26 billion probe, that day is Friday, September 15, 2017.
During a press conference held by the US space agency on April 4, researchers explained why they're killing off their cherished spacecraft with what they call the "Grand Finale." The maneuver will use up the fleeting reserves of Cassini's fuel and put the robot on a collision course with Saturn.
"Cassini's own discoveries were its demise," said Earl Maize, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who manages the Cassini mission.
Maize was referring to a warm, saltwater ocean that Cassini found hiding beneath the icy crust of Enceladus, a large moon of Saturn that spews water into space. NASA's probe flew through these curtain-like jets of vapor and ice in October 2015, "tasted" the material, and indirectly discovered the subsurface ocean's composition — and it's one that may support alien life.