NASA's groundbreaking Cassini space craft dead after 20 years exploring Saturn

Richard Wilson

The reason Nasa chose to obliterate Cassini is that if it is left to drift around the planet, it could collide with one of Saturn's moons which may have an effect on any possible life elsewhere in the solar system. "We can't go there ourselves, so we build a spacecraft and load it up with instruments, and then we put on our hopes and desires and we send them there", said science planner Jo Pitesky.

The unprocessed images of the Saturn system shared by NASA were taken by the Cassini spacecraft on Wednesday. NASA now believes the circled area in the image below is where the spacecraft finally became part of the planet it studied for so long.

Cassini is set for its final dive towards the planet and burn up in its atmosphere on Friday.

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Still, it was an emotional time for everyone involved, as many have been working with this spacecraft for decades. Confirmation of its expected demise came about 7:55 a.m. when radio signals from the spacecraft - sent 83 minutes earlier - came to an abrupt halt, ending the mission that launched in 1997. Hundreds of geysers vent water vapor from salt-water oceans beneath the planet's surface into space. "It will radiate across the solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. "I'll call this the end of mission".

Even in its final months, Cassini got to collect some of its juiciest data.

NASA's science mission director, Thomas Zurbuchen, made note of all the tissues Friday morning inside JPL's Mission Control, along with the customary lucky peanuts. It has been in the "Grand Finale" of its scientific mission since April, when it shifted its orbit closer to the planet.

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In a recent update from NASA, Cassini has begun transmitting data, including the final images taken by its imaging cameras, before its final plunge, which is scheduled at around 5.30 pm (IST).

But Cassini still made the most of its final descent.

Cassini's last dedicated images of Enceladus' plumes, taken August 28 over the course of 14 hours.

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The Cassini mission began on October 15 1997 when the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Titan IVB/Centaur rocket. It's sad to see the spacecraft end. 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.

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