Cassini makes final flyby of Titan before death plunge

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Cassini is ending its 13-year tour of the Saturn system with an intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn's moons - in particular Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity - remain pristine for future exploration, Dyches said.

The Cassini spacecraft completed its final encounter with Saturn's largest moon, Titan, before setting itself on a fatal collision course with the ringed planet later this week.

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Cassini zoomed within 73,974 miles (119,049 kilometers) of Titan Monday (Sept. 11) in a flyby created to lower the probe's orbit enough to ensure that it will crash into Saturn's thick atmosphere as planned on Friday, NASA officials said.

The final targets - all repeats - include big moon Titan and little moon Enceladus, one or both of them potentially harboring life; tiny moonlets embedded in Saturn's rings; and one final color montage of Saturn and its rings.

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Cassini project Manager Earl maize at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California says that "Cassini has been in a long term relationship with Titan, with a new rendezvous almost every month for more than a decade".

"This final encounter is something of a bittersweet goodbye, but as it has done throughout the mission, Titan's gravity is once again sending Cassini where we need it to go", Maize added. Titan also has lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons on its surface. This extended stay has permitted observations of the long-term variability of the planet, moons, rings and magnetosphere, observations not possible from short, flyby-style missions.

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NASA will be extracting every last detail of data from Cassini as it disappears forever above one of the Earth's most recognisable - and now less mysterious - neighbours. No spacecraft has ever ventured so close to the planet before. This is expected to take place at 7:54 a.m. EDT (12:44 p.m. BST).

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate, said: "Cassini has transformed our thinking in so many ways".

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