Cassini’s Final Orbits of Saturn’s Solar System

The probe’s instruments would investigate Saturn’s temperature field, clouds and composition as well as Titan’s thick haze using radar technology and sampling its rings system.

Cassini revolutionized our understanding of Saturn. Her discoveries revolutionized how we perceive this system. Although her mission ended abruptly when she fell into Saturn’s atmosphere in 2017, but not before collecting an incredible wealth of data.

The Cassini Mission

Conduct in-depth studies of Saturn, its moons, rings and magnetic environment.

Cassini spacecraft was launched on 15 October 1997, using a series of “slingshot” maneuvers around Venus to build momentum for its journey towards Saturn. Arriving there in 2004, it spent 13 years making astonishing discoveries about its majestic rings, gorgeous moons and dynamic atmosphere.

The highlight of the mission was undoubtedly the Grand Finale – 22 daredevil ‘ring dives’ between Saturn and its rings to provide scientists with unprecedented access to Saturn’s interior, giving insight into their formation as well as revealing previously hidden planets such as Enceladus’ water jets, Titan’s methane cycle and Saturn’s mysterious F ring structure.

In September 2017 the mission concluded with a controlled plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, to prevent accidental impacts with any of Saturn’s moons that might contain conditions suitable for life. Scientists working on the mission programmed their spacecraft so it would be destroyed on command by Saturn’s fiery gases.

The Grand Finale

Cassini and Huygens probe, on their more than two decade mission, have made extraordinary discoveries. Their twin spacecraft have examined Saturn’s atmosphere, studied its rings and flown by some of its moons – an achievement far exceeding expectations.

After Voyager’s captivating flybys, scientists knew they needed to gain closer access to Saturn. And in 2004, Cassini arrived and began its extensive investigation of this remarkable planet with many hidden depths.

Spacecraft had been studying Saturn for over a decade, uncovering mysteries while creating more for future astronomers to investigate. For its final orbits were an incredible Grand Finale featuring 22 death-defying “ring dives” between April and September 2017 that revealed astounding worlds where methane rivers flow into a liquid methane sea and jets of water shoot out from Enceladus’ icy fragments; also explored Titan’s atmospheric hazes; but with its demise on Friday this data stream has now dried up completely.

The Final Orbits

Cassini’s Final Orbits began with a close flyby of Titan and were his final chance to solve longstanding mysteries and capture memorable “Kodak moments,” such as seeing Saturn’s rings from within out.

The Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) examined Titan’s atmosphere while the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) captured movies of Saturn’s northern polar hexagon jet stream. Furthermore, during this orbit the Cosmic Dust Analyzer (CDA) collected and studied tiny ring particles to establish how old Saturn’s rings are.

This orbit was the inaugural Gravity Science orbit, performing unprecedented analysis on Saturn’s rings using unprecedented detail. Additionally, Radio Science Subsystem (RSS) conducted a radio occultation wherein spacecraft deliberately passed close by Saturn’s rings to measure their mass.

The Final Mission

Cassini made numerous voyages around Saturn over 13 years, returning captivating observations about its rings, moons and atmosphere – solving some mysteries but also raising new ones along the way.

Spacecraft of extraordinary versatility, it featured imaging cameras, radar and spectrometers among its suite of instruments. Notably, its composite infrared spectrometer identified evidence of a storm which had struck Saturn’s northern hemisphere and caused temperature levels in its stratosphere to spike 150 degrees Fahrenheit; additionally it noticed a mysterious discharge of rare gas ethylene as well as strong chemical reactions on Saturn.

Cassini was launched into space in 1997, along with European lander Huygens attached. They eventually made an extraordinary rendezvous with Saturn’s moon Titan using the drill of Huygens; using its data collection capabilities and drilling into Titan’s surface using its probe, data from which validated theories of cryovolcanism while raising questions as to whether Enceladus might also harbor an ocean beneath its frozen surface; in addition, this event caused scientists to reconsider concepts related to “ring formation.” For engineers back on Earth to receive responses, this process takes between 68 to 84 minutes (if all goes according to plan).

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