NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has kicked off a ring-gazing mission to study the moons and rings of Saturn. The thrilling ride marked the first phase of a ‘dramatic endgame’ for the Cassini spacecraft, which is 19-year-old. Cassini spacecraft will circle high over and under the poles of Saturn over the next five months every seven days for a total of 20 times, Xinhua news agency reported.
"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," Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Linda Spilker said in a statement.
"In addition, we have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ring-plane, so in a sense Cassini is also 'grazing' on the rings."
The Cassini spacecraft will pass directly through an extremely faint ring produced by tiny meteors striking Saturn's two small moons Janus and Epimetheus during the first two orbits.
In March and April, ring crossings will send Cassini through the dusty outer reaches of the F ring, the outer boundary of the planet's main ring system.
NASA said Cassini's ring-grazing orbits also offer "unprecedented opportunities to observe the menagerie of small moons", including best-ever looks at the moons Pandora, Atlas, Pan and Daphnis.
These orbits are however merely a preface to Cassini’s "Grand Finale phase". It will kick off in April 2017 when Cassini will fly through the 2,350 km gap between Saturn and its rings.
On September 15, 2017, Cassini will finally make a mission-ending plunge into the planet's atmosphere.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004. Since then it has been touring the Saturn system. Cassini has made several dramatic discoveries during its journey. It found a global ocean within Enceladus and liquid methane seas on Titan. As Cassini spacecraft is running low on fuel, it is drawing near its end.