Cassini Spacecraft Makes Its Final Approach to Saturn
Jet Propulsion Laboratory
September 13, 2017
NASA's Cassini spacecraft is on final approach to Saturn, following confirmation
by mission navigators that it is on course to dive into the planet's atmosphere
on Friday, Sept. 15.
Cassini is ending its 13-year tour of the Saturn system with an intentional
plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn's moons - in particular Enceladus,
with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity - remain
pristine for future exploration. The spacecraft's fateful dive is the
final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives, which began
in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings. No spacecraft
has ever ventured so close to the planet before.
The mission's final calculations predict loss of contact with the Cassini
spacecraft will take place on Sept. 15 at 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT).
Cassini will enter Saturn's atmosphere approximately one minute earlier,
at an altitude of about 1,190 miles (1,915 kilometers) above the planet's
estimated cloud tops (the altitude where the air pressure is 1-bar, equivalent
to sea level on Earth). During its dive into the atmosphere, the spacecraft's
speed will be approximately 70,000 miles (113,000 kilometers) per hour.
The final plunge will take place on the day side of Saturn, near local
noon, with the spacecraft entering the atmosphere around 10 degrees north
When Cassini first begins to encounter Saturn's atmosphere, the spacecraft's
attitude control thrusters will begin firing in short bursts to work against
the thin gas and keep Cassini's saucer-shaped high-gain antenna pointed
at Earth to relay the mission's precious final data. As the atmosphere
thickens, the thrusters will be forced to ramp up their activity, going
from 10 percent of their capacity to 100 percent in the span of about
a minute. Once they are firing at full capacity, the thrusters can do
no more to keep Cassini stably pointed, and the spacecraft will begin
When the antenna points just a few fractions of a degree away from Earth,
communications will be severed permanently. The predicted altitude for
loss of signal is approximately 930 miles (1,500 kilometers) above Saturn's
cloud tops. From that point, the spacecraft will begin to burn up like
a meteor. Within about 30 seconds following loss of signal, the spacecraft
will begin to come apart; within a couple of minutes, all remnants of
the spacecraft are expected to be completely consumed in the atmosphere
Due to the travel time for radio signals from Saturn, which changes as
both Earth and the ringed planet travel around the Sun, events currently
take place there 83 minutes before they are observed on Earth. This means
that, although the spacecraft will begin to tumble and go out of communication
at 6:31 a.m. EDT (3:31 a.m. PDT) at Saturn, the signal from that event
will not be received at Earth until 83 minutes later.
"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo. It will radiate across
the solar system for nearly an hour and a half after Cassini itself has
gone," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion
Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "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."
Cassini's last transmissions will be received by antennas at NASA's Deep
Space Network complex in Canberra, Australia.
Cassini is set to make groundbreaking scientific observations of Saturn,
using eight of its 12 science instruments. All of the mission's magnetosphere
and plasma science instruments, plus the spacecraft's radio science system,
and its infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers will collect data during
the final plunge.
Chief among the observations being made as Cassini dives into Saturn are
those of the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS). The instrument
will directly sample the composition and structure of the atmosphere,
which cannot be done from orbit. The spacecraft will be oriented so that
INMS is pointed in the direction of motion, to allow it the best possible
access to oncoming atmospheric gases.
For the next couple of days, as Saturn looms ever larger, Cassini expects
to take a last look around the Saturn system, snapping a few final images
of the planet, features in its rings, and the moons Enceladus and Titan.
The final set of views from Cassini's imaging cameras is scheduled to
be taken and transmitted to Earth on Thursday, Sept. 14. If all goes as
planned, images will be posted to the Cassini mission website beginning
around 11 p.m. EDT (8 p.m. PDT). The unprocessed images will be available
Live mission commentary and video from JPL Mission Control will air on
NASA Television from 7 to 8:30 a.m. EDT (4 a.m. to 5:30 a.m. PDT) on Sept.
15. A post-mission news briefing from JPL is currently scheduled for 9:30
a.m. EDT (6:30 a.m. PDT), also on NASA TV.
NASA TV is available online at:
A new NASA e-book, The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini, showcasing
compelling images and key science discoveries from the mission, is available
for free download in multiple formats at:
An online toolkit of information and resources about Cassini's Grand Finale
and final plunge into Saturn is available at:
Follow the Cassini spacecraft's plunge on social media using #GrandFinale,
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European
Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech
in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate,
Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.
More information about Cassini:
Updated at 1:30 p.m. PDT on Sept. 13, 2017 to correct travel time for
a signal from Cassini to Earth from 86 minutes to 83 minutes.
News Media Contact
Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
NASA Headquarters, Washington
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.