Saturn Surprises As Cassini Continues its Grand Finale

As NASA’s Cassini spacecraft makes its unprecedented series of weekly dives between Saturn and its rings, scientists are finding — so far — that the planet’s magnetic field has no discernible tilt. This surprising observation, which means the true length of Saturn’s day is still unknown, is just one of several early insights from the final phase of Cassini’s mission, known as the Grand Finale. Other recent science highlights include promising hints about the structure and composition of the icy rings, along with high-resolution images of the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere. Cassini is now in the 15th of 22 weekly orbits that pass through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings. The spacecraft began its finale on April 26 and will continue its dives until Sept. 15, when it will make a mission-ending plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere. “Cassini is performing beautifully in the final leg of its long journey,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “Its observations continue to surprise and delight as we squeeze out every last bit of science that we can get.” Cassini scientists are thrilled as well — and surprised in some cases — with the observations being made by the spacecraft in the finale. “The data we are seeing from Cassini’s Grand Finale are every bit as exciting as we hoped, although we are still deep in the process of working out what they are telling us about Saturn and its rings,” said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker at JPL.”

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