PASADENA (CNS) - The Jet Propulsion Laboratory-managed Cassini spacecraft was on its final approach today toward Saturn -- and its ultimate doom.
Mission managers have confirmed that Cassini is on course toward the ringed planet, which the ship has been circling for the past 13 years. Cassini made a close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan on Monday, a pass that slightly shifted the spacecraft's trajectory and sent it on a path leading into Saturn's atmosphere.
NASA and JPL officials called the close encounter with Titan -- at an altitude of 73,974 miles above the moon's surface -- a “goodbye kiss.''
JPL officials said they expect to lose contact with the spacecraft at about 4:55 a.m. Friday, one minute after it enters Saturn's atmosphere around 1,190 miles above the planet's cloud tops and its thrusters are no longer able to keep the ship stable. Cassini will then plunge into the planet at a speed of about 70,000 mph.
“The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo,'' said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “It will radiate across the solar system for nearly an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone. Even though we'll know that, at Saturn, Cassini has already met its fate, its mission isn't truly over for us on Earth as long as we're still receiving its signal.''
During the final plunge, eight of Cassini's science instruments will be collecting data until the last possible minute, including data on the composition and structure of the planet's atmosphere. It's final data will be received on Earth at NASA's Deep Space Network complex in Canberra, Australia.
As Cassini approaches Saturn, it will continue taking photos of the planet, its rings and moons, with its final images expected to be received Thursday night.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004.