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NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft Set To Observe Saturn’s Rings Up Close

BALTIMORE (WJZ) — All good things must come to an end.

And for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, the end will come when it crashes into Saturn later this year.

Sad, yes. But its final mission is already breaking new ground in science.

After 13 years in orbit, Cassini is now grazing the outside of Saturn’s famous rings.

The images of them from Cassini are the closest ever captured.

Made up of dust and ice particles, the edge of the rings is only 30 feet thick.

“So incredibly thin, and when they turn edge on they really almost disappear,” says Dr. Conor Nixon, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“In April we’re going to do a very dramatic change in our orbit and we’re going to change from going just outside the rings to just inside the rings,” Nixon says. “We’re going to be diving through the gap between the planet and the rings. That’s going to be a really exciting time.”

And as each of those orbits gets closer to Saturn, “we’ll be able to sample its upper atmosphere directly, and that will give us incredible information that’s never been seen before.”

When it hits the atmosphere in September, however, Cassini will be destroyed. Ending the mission by crashing it into the planet guarantees it won’t someday bump into something else.

“And possibly impacting one of the moons that we’re worried about that there may be life on, for example Enceladus,” Nixon says. “So we want to protect those moons from any bacteria that may be carried on the spacecraft from Earth, so it’s still a pristine environment.”

While the rings are the pièce de résistance of the mission, the discoveries already made by Cassini include dozens of small moons. Nearly 60 are now known to orbit the giant planet.

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