The Cassini spacecraft’s 12-year journey around Saturn is coming to an end, but not before a death-defying journey through the gas giant’s iconic rings.
Over the next nine months, Cassini will repeatedly dive towards and through the vast belts of rock, as it prepares to dump itself in Saturn’s atmosphere.
NASA scientists are set upon ditching the craft before it runs out of fuel, preventing it from one day crashing into one of the planet’s 53 moons.
There’s a slim chance that Enceladus and Titan might harbour life, and a satellite from Earth poses a major contamination risk.
But before it crashes out, Cassini is expected to capture stunning photographs and a rich pool of data about the planet.
Magnetic field instrument principal investigator, Prof Michele Dougherty, told the BBC: “One of the big outstanding questions at Saturn, for example, is: we don’t know how long a day is. We have a large error. It’s 10.7 hours plus or minus 0.2 hours.
“Come and ask me afterwards but I think what we learn about the internal structure of the planet could be among the great discoveries of mission.”
The beginning of the end of the Cassini mission starts today (Wednesday), with a rapid ascent above Saturn’s north pole.
It will then drop to a point just outside the outer boundary of the main set of rings.
It will also undertake a series of dives in between the inner edge of the rings and the planet’s atmosphere.
At times, Cassini will pass just 2,000km above Saturn’s cloud tops, the BBC reported.
The photographs are guaranteed to be striking – we’ll be following Cassini’s journey closely.