Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits around Saturn

Now in its final year of operations, NASA’s Cassini mission has begun a daring set of ring-grazing orbits, skimming past the outside edge of Saturn’s main rings.

It completed its first lap at around 1pm on 4 December (UTC). Each orbit from now – another 19 – will take a week.

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The spacecraft is flying closer to Saturn’s rings than it has since its 2004 arrival. It will be the closest study of the rings and offer unprecedented views of moons that orbit near them.

Even more dramatic orbits ahead will bring Cassini closer to Saturn than any spacecraft has dared to go before.

Then on 22 April 2017, Cassini will leap over the rings to begin its final series of daring dives between the planet and the inner edge of the rings. This is Cassini’s grand finale.

After 22 of these orbits, each taking six days to complete, the spacecraft will plunge into the upper atmosphere of the gas giant planet, where it will burn up like a meteor, ending the epic mission to the Saturn system.

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