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Cassini prepares for 'ring-grazing orbits' around Saturn

"We're calling this phase of the mission Cassini's Ring-Grazing Orbits," said NASA scienitst Linda Spilker.

By Brooks Hays
Cassini prepares for 'ring-grazing orbits' around Saturn
NASA's Cassini probe is preparing for the second-to-last phase of its mission, which will include the sampling study of Saturn's main rings. Photo by NASA/JPL

PASADENA, Calif., Nov. 29 (UPI) -- NASA's Cassini probe is preparing to reorient itself. The probe is set to orbit Saturn vertically around its poles. Between Nov. 30 and April 22, Cassini will dive every seven days through the outer reaches of the gas giant's main rings.

"We're calling this phase of the mission Cassini's Ring-Grazing Orbits, because we'll be skimming past the outer edge of the rings," Linda Spilker, Cassini mission scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a news release. "In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ringplane, so in a sense Cassini is also 'grazing' on the rings."

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Cassini will sample ring particles and unique gas molecules that reside near the planet's outer rings. The probe will also gain unique views of the moons Pandora, Atlas, Pan and Daphnis.

The close approaches, which will begin in December, will allow for the most detailed yet images of the A, B and F rings.

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The forthcoming Ring-Grazing Orbits mark the beginning of the end for a storied mission, one that revealed a global subsurface ocean beneath the crust of Enceladus, as well as the presence of liquid methane seas on Titan.

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Scientists know more than they ever have about Saturn's moons thanks to Cassini, but the probe's final moments will be focused on the gas giant itself. Beginning in April 2017, Cassini will embark on its final orbits, diving as close as 1,012 miles above the Saturn's clouds.

The probe will make several passes between the small gap separating Saturn from its rings before making a final plunge into the planet's atmosphere on Sept. 15.

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