NASA‘s Cassini spacecraft has made its final flyby of Saturn’s massive moon Titan, collecting data on the hydrocarbon lakes and haze-enshrouded surface of the alien world.
On April 22, the spacecraft made its closest approach to Titan at a speed of about 13,000 miles per hour, marking the beginning of its ‘Grand Finale.’
This encounter will cause Titan’s gravity to bend Cassini’s orbit, pulling it slightly in so that it can begin its final set of 22 dives between Saturn and its rings, before plunging into the planet on Sept 15.
The spacecraft made its 127th and final close approach to Titan on April 21 at 11:08 p.m. PDT (2:08 a.m. EDT on April 22), passing at an altitude of about 608 miles (979 kilometers) above the moon’s surface.
Cassini transmitted its images and other data to Earth following the encounter.
Scientists with Cassini’s radar investigation will be looking this week at their final set of new radar images of the hydrocarbon seas and lakes that spread across Titan’s north polar region.
The planned imaging coverage includes a region previously seen by Cassini’s imaging cameras, but not by radar.
The radar team also plans to use the new data to probe the depths and compositions of some of Titan’s small lakes for the first (and last) time, and look for further evidence of the evolving feature researchers have dubbed the ‘magic island’.
‘Cassini’s up-close exploration of Titan is now behind us, but the rich volume of data the spacecraft has collected will fuel scientific study for decades to come,’ said Linda Spilker, the mission’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.
It marks the beginning of the ‘thrilling final chapter’ of Cassini’s life, twenty years after it left Earth.
The craft has circled Saturn for 13 years since reaching its orbit in 2004, spearheading remarkable discoveries about the ringed planet and its icy moons – but now, it’s running low on fuel.
« With this flyby we’re committed to the Grand Finale, » said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.
« The spacecraft is now on a ballistic path, so that even if we were to forgo future small course adjustments using thrusters, we would still enter Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15 no matter what. »