Cassini’s Grand Finale

Posted on Tue, March 21, 2017

This view shows Saturn's northern hemisphere in 2016. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft has spent almost 13 years exploring the beautiful giant planet Saturn and its amazingly diverse moons. Cassini’s mission will end in September when it plunges into Saturn’s atmosphere, but it will leave behind a wealth of knowledge and wonder. Carolyn Porco, principal investigator for the Cassini imaging system, will speak about this remarkable mission on Thursday, March 23 as part of the Museum’s Exploring Space Lecture Series—and the lecture will be webcast live.

The spacecraft was named for Giovanni Cassini who, back in the 17th century, discovered four of Saturn’s moons and the division in the rings, which also bears his name. Like its namesake, the Cassini spacecraft discovered seven moons. The Cassini mission also revealed amazing features in the Saturn system, including details of  the planet’s atmosphere and rings, the plumes of the moon Enceladus, and the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan. Cassini carried the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe which dropped through Titan’s obscuring atmosphere and imaged the surface below.

The last stage of the Cassini mission, known as the Grand Finale, has begun.  Cassini is currently   flying in polar orbits that hug the outermost edge of the rings. It will then make risky passes between the planet and its innermost rings before disappearing into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The wavemaker moon, Daphnis, is featured in this view, taken as NASA's Cassini spacecraft made one of its ring-grazing passes over the outer edges of Saturn's rings on Jan. 16, 2017. This is the closest view of the small moon obtained yet. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The first images from the Grand Finale show more detailed views of the rings than ever before and also close-ups of tiny moons. Here the moon Daphnis travels within a small gap in the rings.

The Cassini mission has produced some profound insights into the processes and environments of large planetary systems, increasing our understanding of how planets work and even providing tantalizing clues to the possibilities of life on other worlds. To learn more about the contributions of Cassini and its Grand Finale, be sure to join us for Carolyn Porco’s lecture “Cassini to Saturn: The Journey and the Legacy” at the Museum or online