NASA's Cassini spacecraft at Saturn nears finale

JPL-Caltech

JPL-Caltech

NASA's Cassini spacecraft ended its 20-year mission, and 13-year mission touring Saturn, Friday, Sept. 15 when it crashed into Saturn's atmosphere.

Confirmation of Cassini's expected demise came about 4:55 a.m. PDT.

The probe's death dive was actually carried out at roughly 6:31 a.m. EDT, but the delay and distance between Saturn and Earth caused NASA to continue receiving the probe's final radio signals for another 83 minutes after. The spacecraft probably fell another 1,000 kilometers as it disintegrated like a meteor, Maize said.

This is the last image taken by the cameras aboard NASA's awe-inspiring Cassini.

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Having expended nearly all of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, NASA said Cassini was intentionally put on a path to plunge into the gas giant to ensure Saturn's moons - in particular the ice-covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity - remained pristine for future exploration. The announcement revealed two new discoveries; possible hydrogen gas found on Saturn's moon of Enceladus, and possible plumes erupting on Jupiter's moon of Europa.

While telescopes will be pointed at Saturn to try and capture Cassini's last moments, it likely will be moving too fast (and is too small) for any images. The final plunge will take place on the day side of Saturn, near local noon, with the spacecraft entering the atmosphere around 10 degrees north latitude. "I'm going to call this end of mission".

Flight controllers wearing matching purple shirts stood and embraced and shook hands.

During Cassini's final days, mission team members from all around the world gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to celebrate the achievements of this historic mission.

Cassini orbiter sees Earth from Saturn
Cassini orbiter sees Earth from Saturn

"Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years", said project scientist Linda Spilker.

"Most of what we have in science textbooks about Saturn comes from Cassini", JPL Director Mike Watkins said to the Washington Post.

Still, it was an emotional time for everyone involved, as many have been working with this spacecraft for decades.

This Grand Finale, as NASA called it, came about as Cassini's fuel tank started getting low after 13 years exploring the planet. This includes the revelation of oceans on Titan and Enceladus.

Cassini, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory spacecraft which revolutionized man's exploration of his own solar system, is no more, intentionally vaporized Friday morning in the skies above Saturn. Cassini successfully sailed through the gap 22 times, providing ever better close-ups of Saturn. The last time was last week.

Future missions will also have to say whether one of Saturn's potentially habitable moons could be home to alien life.

NASA launched Cassini in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida. (NASA / JPL / ASI / University of Arizona / University of Leicester) One of the last pictures sent back by NASA's Cassini orbiter shows Titan, a smog-covered moon of Saturn, with its hydrocarbon lakes visible toward the top of the image.

Although Cassini is kaput, the mission is far from over for hundreds of scientists back on Earth.

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