Cassini leaves Saturn's moon Enceladus after one last mission

The space probe will study Enceladus' heat before it bids farewell and explores Saturn's rings.

The Cassini vehicle has been visiting Saturn's moon Enceladus for a full decade now, but it's finally time for the two to bid adieu. The spacecraft will fly by Enceladus for the last time at 12:49PM on Saturday, skimming a "moderately close" 3,106 miles above the surface. It won't just be reminiscing on its way out, though: its last major Enceladus mission will see it mapping the icy moon's internal heat, taking advantage of Saturn's years-long winter to conduct studies in ideal conditions.

After that, Cassini is settling into quiet retirement. The ship will still observe Enceladus from a distance, but its focus is shifting more toward Saturn's outer rings. Eventually, it'll travel to the inner rings and (most likely) crash into Saturn sometime in September 2017. Whatever happens, it'll be the end to a very long and productive journey. Cassini launched back in 1997, and has visited a good chunk of the Solar System at least briefly (including Saturn, Venus, Jupiter and an asteroid). It discovered new Saturnian moons and even helped validate the theory of relativity -- think of the next couple of years as a victory lap.

[Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech]