Cassini: 20-Year Mission to Saturn Nears Grand Finale

Geysers of warm water from the sub-surface oceans of Enceladus

Cassini-Huygens is also a frontrunner when it comes to discovery; the satellite discovered and named six moons and discovered two oceans while in space, one on Titan and one on Enceladus, both Saturn's moons.

Cassini's grand finale actually began in April, with a series of dives between Saturn's rings, close to the planet and its moons, providing unprecedented insight. The probe arrived in 2004, and has studied the planet, its rings of ice and dust, and collection of mysterious moons ever since.

Dr Katie Mack is a theoretical astrophysicist at the University of Melbourne.

Even on the way down, the plucky spacecraft will continue to send back data.

After a 20-year voyage, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is poised to dive into Saturn this week to become forever one with the exquisite planet.

"To find that there's an ocean world so tiny with a possibility of life, so far from the sun - 10 times farther from the sun than the Earth - has opened up our paradigm of where you might look for life, both within our own solar system, and in the exoplanet systems beyond", Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist and a planetary scientist at NASA JPL, said of Enceladus during the press conference.

"Cassini has been in a long-term relationship with Titan, with a new rendezvous almost every month for more than a decade".

An illustration of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through the water plumes of Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. A year on Saturn equals almost 30 Earth years. As seasons on Saturn last about seven Earth years each, Cassini was just able to witness summer in the northern hemisphere before the mission ends. Cassini has collected 450,000 images using a visible light camera.

"Cassini has transformed our thinking in so many ways, but especially with regard to surprising places in the solar system where life could potentially gain a foothold", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, in a statement.

Future engineers will borrow that trick to explore Jupiter's moon Europa with the Clipper mission, which is planned to launch in the 2020s. JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

NASA is hoping for scientific dividends up until the end.

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