PASADENA ( — The end is near for JPL’s Cassini spacecraft’s 20-year journey to Saturn.

Cassini was scheduled to make the first of five close flybys of Saturn at 9:22 p.m. Sunday, bringing the spacecraft to within 1,010 to 1,060 miles of the ringed planet’s cloud tops, according to Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It will be the final phase of the spacecraft’s 20-year mission to Saturn.

The flybys will be a lead-in to Cassini’s dramatic finale, which will begin Sept. 11 with a pass by Titan that will bend the ship’s orbit. Cassini will plunge into the planet four days later.

The ship’s scientific instruments will be operating, but once it gets close to the planet, the atmospheric density will be so intense that Cassini’s rockets won’t be able to point the antenna toward Earth, cutting off communication. Moments later, the ship will break apart “like a meteor,” according to JPL.

Cassini was launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004. It began the “Grand Finale” of its mission in late April with a close flyby of Titan, followed by a series of dives between the planet and its famous rings.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)


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