US space agency NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is all set to begin its self-destructive 'Grand Finale' with its last five complete orbits around the gas giant before the spacecraft burns up in its upper atmosphere.
Starting the dive on Sunday evening, Cassini's closest approach will place the spacecraft between 1,010 and 1,060 miles above the planet. It would use small rocket thursters to remain stable in Saturn's dense atmosphere, similar to flybys of Saturn's moon Titan.
These flybys would make it possible for engineers to study the density of planet's atmosphere. If the atmosphere is less dense than models suggest, then the altitude of the spacecraft will be lowered on the last two orbits to allow the science instruments to take closer measurements.
However, if the atmosphere is more dense than expected, the altitude will be slightly raised in the subsequent orbits.
"Cassini’s Titan flybys prepared us for these rapid passes through Saturn’s upper atmosphere", Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. "Thanks to our past experience, the team is confident that we understand how the spacecraft will behave at the atmospheric densities our models predict."
Cassini will capture high resolution observations of Saturn’s auroras, temperature and the vortexes at the planet’s poles during the final orbits.
"It’s long been a goal in planetary exploration to send a dedicated probe into the atmosphere of Saturn and we’re laying the groundwork for future exploration with this first foray", Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist said.
On September 11, NASA will use Titan gravitational force to pave way for Cassini into the gas giant. Spacecraft's seven science instruments will be turned on and report measurements in near real time, until it finally breaks apart after plunging into Saturn's atmosphere.
This maneuver has been dubbed as the "goodbye kiss."