Category Archives: Cassini spacecraft

Cassini’s Grand Finale orbits — the final orbits of its nearly 20-year mission — between the rings and the planet where no spacecraft has ventured before on September 15, 2017.

Pasadena, Calif. , NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, CALtech - After almost 20 years in space, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft begins the final chapter of its remarkable story of exploration: its Grand Finale. In Cassini’s Grand Finale orbits — the final orbits of its nearly 20-year mission — the spacecraft travels in an elliptical path that sends it diving at tens of thousands of miles per hour through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) space between the rings and the planet where no spacecraft has ventured before.

Color illustration of Cassini diving between Saturn and its innermost ring.
In the still from the short film Cassini’s Grand Finale, the spacecraft is shown diving between Saturn and the planet’s innermost ring on April 7, 2017 Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech
Cassini’s current position image uses real spacecraft trajectories and is updated every five minutes. Distance and velocities are updated in real-time. For a full 3D, immersive experience download NASA’s free Eyes on the Solar System app. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Each of these last 22 orbits takes about six and a half days to complete. They begin April 22 and end Sept. 15. When Cassini is nearest to Saturn during each orbit, the spacecraft’s speed ranges between 75,000 and 78,000 miles per hour (121,000 and 126,000 kilometers per hour), depending on the orbit. The Grand Finale orbits are so named because they not only carry Cassini to its end, but because they are truly grand. The spacecraft flies through an unexplored region of the Saturnian system, producing unique images and attempting to solve longtime mysteries, such as the mass of Saturn’s rings and the planet’s rotation rate — the length of a Saturn day. And then during Cassini’s last five orbits, the spacecraft dips down to directly sample Saturn’s upper atmosphere.

Cassini gazes across the icy rings of Saturn toward the icy moon Tethys, whose night side is illuminated by Saturnshine, or sunlight reflected by the planet. › Full image and caption
Cassini gazes across the icy rings of Saturn toward the icy moon Tethys, whose night side is illuminated by Saturnshine, or sunlight reflected by the planet. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The summaries posted on this page for each Grand Finale orbit include only a few highlights of the many unparalleled science investigations that Cassini performs during these unprecedented orbits. Also, because Saturn is a gas giant, Cassini can’t be described as being a certain distance from the planet’s “surface.” So, to convey Cassini’s distance from Saturn, each summary also includes the spacecraft’s closest approach to Saturn’s 1-bar level for that orbit. A bar is the atmospheric pressure you experience on Earth at sea level.

A short, animated video describing Cassini’s Grand Finale. Download ›d

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini . The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org . Cassini’s Grand Finale orbits — the final orbits of its nearly 20-year mission — the spacecraft travels in an elliptical path that sends it diving at tens of thousands of miles per hour through  space between the rings and the planet where no spacecraft has ventured before on September 15, 2017.