An explorer that’s winding down its mission is scheduled to make a close pass by the rings of Saturn early Tuesday. It’ll fly less than 60,000 miles above Saturn’s cloudtops, putting it just beyond the edge of the planet’s magnificent rings.
Cassini has been exploring Saturn and its rings and moons for more than a decade. It’s running out of fuel, though, so it’s being targeted to slam into Saturn in September.
In preparation for that final maneuver, it’s been placed in an orbit that carries it above Saturn’s poles, and just outside the rings. That’s allowing it to study the rings in greater detail than ever before. The new observations may help scientists determine just how and when the rings formed.
In April, Cassini will move even closer to Saturn. Each orbit will carry it through the narrow gap between the planet and the inner edge of the rings, providing striking views of Saturn’s clouds.
These close passes also will allow the craft to make high-resolution maps of Saturn’s magnetic and gravitational fields. Those readings will reveal more about the planet’s core — a final accomplishment for a planetary explorer.
And Saturn is in good view at dawn the next couple of days. It looks like a bright golden star, and will stand close to the lower left of the Moon tomorrow, and about the same distance to the right or upper right of the Moon on Tuesday — about the time Cassini is sweeping past the giant planet’s rings.
Script by Damond Benningfield