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Cassini team seeks name for ring-gazing mission

Elizabeth Howell, News Writer
Apr 12, 2014, 7:00 UTC

Sen—After more than a decade of sending back spectacular visions of Saturn to Earth, managers of the Cassini spacecraft have a new plan for their plucky machine: to send it on a series of swoops that will bring it in between the planet and its rings.

This next phase of the mission will start in 2016, and to drum up excitement for it, NASA is inviting the public to submit their idea for what to call the mission.

A spokesman for the agency said: "Because the spacecraft will be very close to Saturn, the team has been calling this phase 'the proximal orbits'.

"But they think someone out there can conjure up a cooler name. Here's where you come in: you can choose your faves from a list already assembled, or you can submit your own ideas (up to three)."

Saturn Cassini

A false-color image of Saturn showing heat coming from the planet's interior (red). Picture taken by Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASI/University of Arizona

Ideas on the list include a few references to "tours" such as "Farewell Tour" and "Goodbye Tour" — sadly, there's no "Magical Mystery Tour" yet. Other possibilities could be "Close Shave", "The Plunge" and in true NASA fashion, an acronym pronounced "sassy" (which would be Solstice and Saturn In Situ Exploration, or SASIE.)

While the pictures returned from the close shaves by the ring will surely be spectacular, the Cassini team also has several scientific reasons to do the mission. One is that it will be examining Saturn's magnetic fields and gravity, looking at things such as the "irksome mystery" of how fast the interior of the gas giant is rotating, NASA said.

As for the rings themselves, getting an up-close view will give scientists a better sense of their composition and how much stuff is inside of them, which could reveal more information about how they came to be in the first place.

Saturn rings Cassini

A view of Saturn's rings from the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL

Cassini's final act will then be a suicide plunge into Saturn's atmosphere so that it doesn't accidentally contaminate the moons Enceladus and Titan  — two moons that are considered strong candidates for life.

"It’s inspiring, adventurous and romantic – a fitting end to this thrilling story of discovery," NASA said.

This past week, Cassini made the closest pass to the moon Titan that it plans to do for the rest of the mission. Whilst passing by the foggy moon, the spacecraft examined its upper atmosphere.

The naming contest is available at this link and all entries must be received by 25 April.