So long, Titan. Cassini snaps parting pics of Saturn’s largest moon

Titan's lake region

IN THE REARVIEW WINDOW  A final image of Saturn’s moon Titan (like one shown here from the Cassini spacecraft’s last distant flyby September 11) will be among the “final picture postcards of the Saturn system … to put in our Cassini scrapbook,” Linda Spilker, head scientist for the Cassini mission, said in a news conference September 13.

Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA

The Cassini spacecraft has snapped its penultimate pics of Saturn’s moon Titan.

This image, shot September 11 as Cassini swung past the moon at a distance of about 119,049 kilometers, shows Titan’s lake region near its north pole. “The haze has cleared remarkably as the summer solstice has approached,” Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker said in a news conference September 13.

Cassini performed 127 close flybys of Titan over the course of its 13-year mission, and used the moon’s gravity to adjust its trajectory each time. Those gravity assists let the team create a full global map of Titan.

Future engineers will borrow that trick to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa with the Clipper mission, which is planned to launch in the 2020s. “Cassini pioneered that whole concept,” Jim Green, head of NASA’s planetary science division director, said at the news conference.   

On this final pass, Titan’s gravity had one last job. It nudged Cassini on its final trajectory: making a beeline for Saturn. Tomorrow, the probe will spend its last full day in space snapping images of its greatest hits: Saturn and the rings, Titan, a small moon forming within the rings informally dubbed “Peggy,” the moon Enceladus, ring ripples called propellers and finally, the location of its own demise.  The spacecraft will disintegrate above the gas giant’s cloud tops early in the morning of September 15.

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

More Stories from Science News on Astronomy