By Dennis Overbye
It’s the beginning of a spectacular, almost circuslike end for NASA’s Cassini mission. For 12 years Cassini has been buzzing about Saturn, its rings and its moons. As a result we know that there are methane lakes on Titan and jets of water shooting from Enceladus, and the rings themselves have warps, ripples, hills twists and braids.
Now the Cassini spacecraft has gradually shifted into an orbit that takes it over the planet’s north and south poles and then down into a series of increasingly vertiginous-looking dives perpendicular to the plane of its buttery glowing rings.
Starting on Wednesday, as shown here, with a gravitational nudge from the moon Titan, Cassini is set to commence a series of 20 dives just outside the outer edge of the main ring system. Along the way the spacecraft will try to sample ring particles and gases that live there in its vicinity, and pass only 56,000 miles above Saturn’s cloud tops.
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