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Science & Environment

Cassini Spacecraft Heads To Saturn

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

It is entirely possible that with all the high-profile space travel over the last 20 years, you might have forgotten or perhaps never even knew about the Cassini spacecraft. It lifted off from Cape Canaveral on October 15, 1997. Its destination? Saturn. The journey took seven years. Cassini zoomed past Venus and explored Jupiter before entering into orbit around the gas giant Saturn, the first spacecraft to do so. This week, it begins its final mission, to explore the space between Saturn and its rings. The gravity of the planet's largest moon, Titan, will pull the craft into unknown territory. It's expected Cassini will make the first of 22 dives by Wednesday. It enters into its final dive next September. That dive will end with a deliberate crash into Saturn that will destroy the spacecraft. During its many years in space, the Cassini has sent back some spectacular photos, most recently a picture of Earth. At a distance of almost 900 million miles, our planet looks like a tiny dot against a black sky. Looming over it is one of Saturn's famed rings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATURN")

STEVIE WONDER: (Singing) Going back to Saturn where the rings all glow - rainbow, moonbeams and orange snow. On Saturn, people live to be 205. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.