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Cassini has begun its last year at Saturn, making its first close fly-by of the gas giant’s rings yesterday.
Cassini’s imaging cameras obtained views of Saturn about two days before crossing through the ring plane, but not near the time of closest approach. The focus of this first close pass was the engine maneuver and observations by Cassini’s other science instruments. Future dives past the rings will feature some of the mission’s best views of the outer regions of the rings and small, nearby moons.
Each of Cassini’s orbits for the remainder of the mission will last one week. The next pass by the rings’ outer edges is planned for Dec. 11. The ring-grazing orbits — 20 in all — will continue until April 22, when the last close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan will reshape Cassini’s flight path. With that encounter, Cassini will leap over the rings, making the first of 22 plunges through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its innermost ring on April 26.
On Sept. 15, the mission will conclude with a final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere. During the plunge, Cassini will transmit data on the atmosphere’s composition until its signal is lost.
Now for a bit of reality: When Cassini’s mission ends on September 15, 2017, it will likely be a minimum of 20 years before another spacecraft returns.