Saturn Cassini Probe Begins Final Year of Exploration Before Fiery Plunge Into Atmosphere

Space probe will crash into planet next year.

— -- NASA's Cassini space probe is preparing for its swan song before its programmed crash into Saturn next year.

Launched in 1997, the Cassini mission arrived in the Saturn system in 2004 where it has been working ever since to study the gas giant and its dozens of moons. The probe's mission is scheduled to end in September 2017, when it will make a fatal plunge into Saturn's atmosphere.

The final act is being referred to as the "grand finale" and is expected to bring the closest look ever at Saturn up until minutes before its fatal impact.

While the end is near, Cassini still has work to do. Later this year, the probe will fly above Saturn's north pole and will probe the plume created by active geysers on Enceladus, Saturn's sixth-largest moon but one of the most intriguing due to its global ocean and internal heat, making it a potential place where life could exist. It will also perform 12 flybys of Saturn's largest moon, Titan.

Cassini's wild final act will then commence as it maneuvers between Saturn's rings 22 times, getting its closest look yet at the planet until taking a fatal plunge through Saturn's atmosphere, collecting data of its final minutes in space.