After a 13-year tour of the Saturn system, NASA’s Cassini will intentionally plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on Friday, September 15, ending a spectacular journey that saw the spacecraft perform several daring dives between the planet and its rings. You can watch the whole thing live on NASA’s Youtube channel.
According to NASA, Cassini will enter Saturn’s atmosphere on the day side, where it will reach speeds over 70,000 miles per hour before burning up like a meteor. Here’s an explanation for how scientists believe the event will unfold:
When Cassini first begins to encounter Saturn’s atmosphere , the spacecraft’s altitude control thrusters will begin firing in short bursts to work against the thing gas and keep Cassini’s saucer-shaped high-gain antenna pointed at Earth to relay the mission’s precious final data. As the atmosphere thickens, the thrusters will be forced to ramp up their activity, going from 10 percent of their capacity to 100 percent in the span of about a minute. Once they are firing at full capacity, they thrusters can do no more to keep Cassini stably pointed, and the spacecraft will begin to tumble.
Scientists predict Cassini will lose contact with Earth permanently when it’s roughly 930 miles above Saturn’s cloud tops. It will take about two minutes for the spacecraft to burn up completely.
Because Cassini doesn’t have enough fuel to continue exploring Saturn, NASA doesn’t want the spacecraft contaminating the planet’s moons, including Enceladus. That’s why scientists have decided it best for Cassini to go out in a blaze of glory in Saturn’s atmosphere.
Loss of contact with Cassini is predicted to occur around 7:55 a.m. EDT on September 15, with NASA’s livestream to begin at 7 a.m. EDT. Until then, check out a series of gorgeous photos snapped by the spacecraft in the gallery above.