On 30 November 2016 NASA's Cassini spacecraft began a series of dives through Saturn's rings, the first stage in the probe's "grand finale" investigation of the gas giant planet.
Between then and 22 April 2017, Cassini will dive through the outer edge of Saturn's rings 20 times, once every seven days. This extraordinary manoeuvre will allow the spacecraft to get the closest look ever at Saturn's outer rings and its moons.
Prof. Carl Murray, from QMUL’s School of Physics and Astronomy, has been working on the Cassini mission since 1990, when he joined the Imaging Science Subsystem Team. His work has focused on Saturn's rings and their gravitational interaction with the small natural satellites orbiting nearby. He is part of an international team that recently used thousands of images from Cassini to measure minute fluctuations in Saturn’s gravitational field. These results will help provide a better understanding of the internal structure of the planet, and hopefully answer the question of what lies at the centre of Saturn.
Cassini’s final task, on 15 September, will be to plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere. That act of self-sacrifice will not only prevent the spacecraft, by then running out of fuel, from contaminating Saturn's potentially habitable moons, but it will also provide an unprecedented view of the planet's gravity, composition and atmosphere.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute