In making a few minor adjustments, NASA’s team is confident that the data it will collect in this latest phase of its mission will help to reach agency goals. The upcoming dives are expected to produce the best views of Saturn’s outer rings to date, as well as close images of a nearby moon of the gas giant.
"We’re in excellent shape to make the most of this new phase of the mission," Earl Maize, Cassini’s lead project manager, said in a statement.
The small adjustments described by NASA include performing a short engine burn of the spacecraft’s main engine and closing the engine cover to form a protective canopy prior to transiting the the rocky ring plane. Cassini has made several groundbreaking discoveries, including finding a global ocean on the moon Enceladus, and identifying what are believed to be liquid methane seas on the moon Titan.
Cassini will make about 20 outer ring-grazing dives between November 30, 2016, and April 22, 2017, before plunging down between the planet and its inner-most rings on April 26, 2017, according to NASA. Each of the 20 plunges will last about a week. During the passes, Cassini’s instruments and imaging devices will sample the particles that form Saturn’s famous rings. The mission will conclude September 15, 2017, when the spacecraft will be directed into the atmosphere of the gas giant, continuing to relay data back to NASA "until its signal is lost."