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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 June, 2004, 22:44 GMT 23:44 UK
Probe positions for Saturn orbit
NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The probe will enter orbit around Saturn in 1 July
The Cassini space craft has performed what may be its final course correction before entering orbit around the ringed planet Saturn on 1 July.

The short pressurised engine burn was the first carried out in five years and simulates a firing that is still needed to make the probe circle the planet.

The manoeuvre also places Cassini on course for a fly-by of the little studied Saturnian moon known as Phoebe.

The four-year mission is a joint venture between the US and Europe.

"You could think of it as a dress rehearsal for Saturn orbit insertion," Dr Linda Spilker, Cassini deputy project scientist at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, US, told BBC News Online.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Storms (dark spots) dot Saturn's upper atmosphere
Dr Dennis Matson, Cassini project scientist at JPL added that it was possible Cassini might need another engine burn to correct its course between now and orbit insertion, but that he hoped it would not be required.

"It looked pretty good, so I wouldn't be surprised if we're all set," Dr Matson explained.

The burn was performed on 27 May and lasted from 2326 BST until 2332 BST.

Scientists will now analyse the probe's course following the burn to check if any further changes are needed.

Cassini will make a close fly-by of Saturn's most distant moon Phoebe on 11 June and will capture high resolution images of its surface.

The moon is intriguingly dark, which has led some scientists to suggest it may be a Centaur: an object that migrated from the distant Kuiper belt that surrounds the Sun.

Cassini will release its piggybacked Huygens probe in January next year. Huygens will attempt to land on the oily seas of Saturn's major moon, Titan.

Meanwhile, Nasa has released stunning images of Saturn as the probe approaches.

The photos show the gas giant and its rings in exceptional detail, including giant storms in the planet's atmosphere and Saturn's rings arranged in fine concentric circles, giving the appearance of a groove on a vinyl record.

All images by Nasa/JPL/Space Science Institute


WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Fergus Walsh
"No one has seen the surface of Titan before"



SEE ALSO:
Rings ready for their close-up
26 May 04  |  Science/Nature
Saturn spacecraft gets an eyeful
30 Apr 04  |  Science/Nature
Saturn probe sights mystery moons
16 Apr 04  |  Science/Nature
Probe sees storms merge on Saturn
09 Apr 04  |  Science/Nature
Moon probe set for white-knuckle descent
14 Feb 04  |  Science/Nature


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