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Cassini is gearing up for the first of its final five orbits of Saturn

WASHINGTON — The Cassini spacecraft — now just weeks away from the end of its mission — is due on Monday to begin the first of five final orbits around Saturn.

Cassini will enter new territory when it goes into the final orbits starting with its pass over Saturn starting at 12:22 a.m. (1622 GMT) on Monday.

It will come as close as 1,630 kilometers above Saturn's cloud tops when it executes the five passes, the US space agency said, describing the passes as "ultra-close" through Saturn's upper atmosphere.

The five final orbits will allow scientists to learn what Saturn looks like on the inside and get high-resolution images of the planet's rings.

The spacecraft is expected to encounter atmosphere dense enough to require the use of its small rocket thrusters to maintain stability.

The Cassini team is confident that they understand how the spacecraft will behave at the atmospheric densities expected because the conditions are similar to those encountered during many of Cassini's close flybys of Saturn's moon Titan.

Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, said the team would consider Monday's pass nominal if the thrusters operate between 10 per cent and 60 per cent of their capability. If they are forced to work harder, it means the atmosphere is denser than models predict, and engineers will increase the altitude of subsequent orbits.

The mission, formally known as the Cassini-Huygens mission, is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. Its mission is due to end on Sept. 15.

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