Get ready, because NASA is about to send its Cassini spacecraft on a daring journey around the gas giant that will give us stunning new views of the planet, its rings, and its moons.
As you might be aware, Cassini – which entered orbit around Saturn in 2004 – is preparing to end its mission with a plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn in September 2017. Before that happens, though, there’s some incredible science left to do.
Beginning on November 30, and lasting until April 22 next year, NASA is going to send Cassini on a sweeping orbit over and under the poles of Saturn, and every week it will dive through the outer regions of Saturn’s rings.
Dubbed a “ring-grazing orbit”, Cassini will use two of its instruments to directly sample particles and gases found near the rings. This will include the closest ever flyby of the F ring, an active ring with a core region surrounded by a spiral strand, possibly formed by a collision between the moons Prometheus and Pandora.
"We're calling this phase of the mission Cassini's Ring-Grazing Orbits, because we'll be skimming past the outer edge of the rings," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement. "In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ringplane, so in a sense Cassini is also 'grazing' on the rings."
During this phase of the mission, Cassini will also be snapping the best-ever images of Saturn’s moons Pandora, Atlas, Pan, and Daphnis. Excitingly, in March it will even attempt to see dust clouds from meteor impacts by observing the rings backlit by the Sun while in Saturn’s shadow.
Cassini will begin imaging the rings in December, with a resolution of up to 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) per pixel, so expect some rather fantastic images to be returned before the year is out. The spacecraft will also be on the lookout for moonlets, tiny bodies just a few hundred meters across. Although it can’t see these directly, it can see the disturbances they cause in the rings, known as “propellers” owing to the shape they produce.
In April, at the end of this phase, NASA will start preparing Cassini for its mission-end, called the Grand Finale phase. This will see it pass just 1,628 kilometers (1,012 miles) above the clouds of Saturn – about four times the distance that the International Space Station (ISS) is from Earth.
So, if you’re getting a bit sick of 2016, fear not. By its end, we should have some glorious new views of Saturn to take our minds off things.