NASA Will Destroy A $3.26 Billion Saturn Probe This Summer To Protect An Alien Water World

An illustration of the Cassini spacecraft over Saturn's north pole with its hexagon-shaped storm. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Cassini's death spiral will officially begin on April 22, 2017. That's when it will, for the last time, fly by Titan: an icy moon of Saturn that's bigger than our own, has a thick atmosphere, seas of liquid methane, and even rain.

Titan's gravity will slingshot Cassini over Saturn, above the planet's atmosphere, and — on April 26 — through a narrow void between the planet and the innermost edge of its rings.

"That last 'kiss goodbye' will put Cassini into Saturn," Maize said. "This is a roller-coaster ride. We're going in, and we are not coming out — it's a one-way trip."

Cassini's science-packed finale

saturn interior layers metallic hydrogen rocky core nasa jpl caltech

An illustration of Saturn's internal structure. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The void between Saturn and its rings is about 1,200 miles wide, or roughly the distance from northern Washington state to the southern tip of California.

"As we're skimming close to the planet, we'll have the best views ever of the poles of the planet," Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist and a planetary scientist at NASA JPL, said during the press briefing. "We'll see the giant hurricanes at the north and south poles."

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Saturn's hexagon-shaped jet stream at the planet's north pole.NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute; Jason Major/Lights in the Dark

During its final orbits above Saturn, Cassini will get its closest-ever views of the hexagon-shaped feature of Saturn's north pole, which Spilker said is "two Earth diameters across" yet poorly understood.

"Perhaps by getting close with Cassini, we'll answer the question, 'What keeps the hexagon there in this particular shape?'" she said.

Spilker said Cassini will also photograph the auroras of Saturn's poles, measure how massive the planet's rings are, sample the icy material they're made of, and even probe deep below its layers of thick clouds.

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