Cassini's grand finale: Saturn's best friend embarking on its final mission

This slingshot maneuver is not the end of the Grand Finale - Cassini is expected to complete 22 of these extremely close orbits before it's finally pulled down into Saturn's atmosphere. "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.

During this period, Titan's gravity will bend Cassini's flight path, causing its orbit to shrink until it passes between the planet and the inner edge of its rings. Because the rings actually block much of Saturn's magnetic field, this mission gives Cassini the first real chance to study them in depth.

In anticipation of Cassini's last mission-set to begin April 26 and finish September 15-the space agency has shared a simulation of its storied spacecraft as it performs its grand finale, which will take it closer to Saturn than any manmade craft has ever been before. It will dive again and again and again, making a total of 22 close shaves of the planet, sending back extremely valuable data and photos the entire time.

By 2017, Cassini will have spent 13 years in orbit around Saturn, following a seven-year journey from Earth. This animated video tells the story of Cassini's final, daring assignment and looks back at what the mission has accomplished.

"The only choice was to destroy it in some controlled fashion and that's where the Grand Finale came in", Maize said.

But the beginning of the end for Cassini is, in many ways, like a whole new mission.

For example, watch the arrival at Saturn on July 1st, 2004, or see Cassini launch the Huygens probe and follow it to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.

According to NASA, the researchers hope to collect the first-ever samples of Saturn's atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings. Five months later, on September 15, Cassini will spectacularly burn up in Saturn's crushing atmosphere. There's also a chance that Cassini could grab the first ever photograph of one of the individual rocks that make up the rings. Cassini is the fourth mission to visit Saturn, a legacy that started with the Pioneer 11 flyby in 1979 and continued with Voyager 1 (1980) and Voyager 2 (1981). "Ultimately, Cassini's discoveries (caused) its demise".

Since then, it has been exploring not only the planet, but also its moons: Enceladus and Titan.

Cassini also discovered Enceladus' awesome water plumes, which in turn helped reveal that the satellite hosts an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell.

On Tuesday scientists announced the plan for Cassini.