Prometheus is a Glittering Jewel in the Cosmic Void

Illustration for article titled Prometheus is a Glittering Jewel in the Cosmic Void

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, bringing the celestial wonders of Saturn’s rings to a screen near you since 2004, has outdone itself once again with its recent portrait of Prometheus, a glittering beauty of a moon suspended in a ring of ice and dust.


First discovered when the Voyager spacecraft sailed through Saturn’s rings in 1980, Prometheus is a 53 mile-across imp that sits just inside the narrow F ring (shown at top). Like many of the dozens of tiny Saturnian moons, we knew next to nothing about Prometheus until it was visited by the Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn in the summer of 2004 and has been traipsing about the gas giant’s rings snapping glorious photos ever since.

It may be the best portrait of the little space jewel we Earthlings ever get. Late next year, Cassini begins its “Grand Finale,” a final reconnaissance of the ring system that ends in 2017, when the probe plunges into Saturn’s blustery atmosphere and is immediately vaporized. Acquired at a distance of 23,000 miles, this was the closest Prometheus flyby left on Cassini’s schedule.



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So what part of the plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere destroys the probe? Winds? Pressure? Gravity? All of the above?