Two decades after putting Earth in its rear-view mirror, the Cassini spacecraft is preparing to wrap up its mission to Saturn—and that means plunging to its death in the planet's atmosphere, according to a press release. Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, sending back information on the planet and its moons. But now it's running low on fuel, and that means it's time to prepare for the end. On April 26, Cassini will start the first of 22 dives into the gap between Saturn and its rings. No spacecraft has ever traversed that gap. "What we learn from Cassini's daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve," one NASA administrator says.
With those dives complete, Cassini will begin its plunge into Saturn itself on Sept. 15, disintegrating on approach. The mission's project manager tells the Guardian that Cassini essentially signed its own death warrant when it discovered environments potentially habitable to life on Saturn's moons. NASA doesn't want to risk contaminating those environments by having Cassini inadvertently crash into them. However, sending the spacecraft to its doom is far from a waste. A NASA project scientist says "some of its most extraordinary observations" will come during its final plunge. That includes collecting data that could hint at Saturn's internal structure and the origins of its rings and the first-ever sample of Saturn's atmosphere. Space.com has a video showing what the final weeks of Cassini's mission will look like. (Read more Cassini stories.)