NASA's Cassini heads for dramatic Titan flyby

Cassini, which is in final phase of the mission, performed a 35-second engine burn on Saturday, January 23.

Last Updated: Jan 27, 2016, 22:48 PM IST
NASA's Cassini heads for dramatic Titan flyby
Photo credit: NASA

Washington: NASA's Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed the second of five planned maneuvers that will lift it out of Saturn's ringplane.

Cassini, which is in final phase of the mission, performed a 35-second engine burn on Saturday, January 23, beginning at 2:47 p.m. PST (5:47 p.m. EST), in preparation for the February 1 flyby of Saturn's huge moon Titan.

The January 23 burn changed the spacecraft's orbital speed around Saturn by about 22.3 feet per second (6.8 meters per second), according to NASA.

Each maneuver in the series sets up a subsequent gravity-assist flyby of Saturn's massive moon Titan, which reshapes the spacecraft's orbit, sending it to increasingly higher inclination with respect to Saturn's equator.

The overall goal of these maneuvers is to get Cassini to a higher plane above Saturn's equator.

"Titan does all the heavy lifting," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, in a statement. "Our job is to get the spacecraft to a precise altitude and latitude above Titan, at a particular time, and these large propulsive maneuvers are what keep us on target to do that."

NASA said Cassini will not return again to an orbit near the plane of the rings. Engineers are slowly increasing the tilt of the spacecraft's orbit with respect to Saturn's equator to set up the mission's final, dramatic year.

By late November, the spacecraft will be on a path that will carry it high above Saturn's poles, approaching just outside the planet's main rings -- a period the mission team calls the "F-ring orbits."

After 20 F-ring orbits, Cassini will begin its Grand Finale event, in which the spacecraft will pass 22 times between the innermost rings and the planet before plunging into Saturn's atmosphere to end its journey on Sept. 15, 2017.

The next burn is scheduled for March 25, with another Titan encounter on April 4.

(Source: NASA)