Ciao, Cassini: NASA spacecraft's long mission ends

Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson

During that time it has sent back some incredible images to Nasa and the European Space Agency, including detailed images of Saturn, its rings and its moons. When Cassini-Huygens launched we held our collective breath, until it was safely on its way. Very shortly Cassini is due to dramatically plunge into Saturn's atmosphere to burn up and disintegrate like a meteor, all the while ensuring every last scrap of information can be passed on, as the spacecraft's antenna will keep pointing towards Earth for as long as its small thrusters will allow.

The spacecraft is in the process of emptying its onboard solid-state recorder of all science data, prior to reconfiguring for a near-real-time data relay during the final plunge, NASA said.

No other spacecraft has ever explored this unique region.

After 13 years of examining the wonders of Saturn and its surroundings, Cassini's journey in space has ended in fire after a last flood of data. But on Friday, September 15, Cassini sent its final signal from 1.4 billion km away. NASA predicts that it will lose contact with Cassini at 7:55 AM ET, about 930 miles above Saturn's clouds.

Spacecraft Operations Manager Julie Webster announced the loss of signal within a minute of the predicted demise.

With Cassini low on fuel, scientists opted to destroy the spacecraft rather than leaving the orbiter to drift around space.

When Cassini was launched in 1997, we knew of 18 Saturnian moons. From water erupting from the surface of Enceladus, to liquid methane flowing on Titan, to a great atmospheric storm that encircled the planet, and tantalizing clues about the age of Saturn's rings, Cassini has discovered more wonders than anyone could have guessed. Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but weren't hopeful it would be spotted against the vast backdrop of the solar system's second biggest planet. But it was impossible to resist the lure of the data they could get from Cassini's Grand Finale - the series of dives between Saturn and its rings.

The ESA-built Huygens probe travelled with Cassini and was dropped in 2005 onto Titan, another of Saturn's moons.

This monochrome view is the last image taken by the imaging cameras on NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

"It will be sad to see Cassini go on Friday, especially as the instrument we built is still working perfectly", said Stanley Cowley, professor of solar planetary physics at the University of Leicester.

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