Goodbye Cassini: NASA spacecraft makes 'death plunge' into Saturn's atmosphere

Goodbye Cassini: NASA spacecraft makes 'death plunge' into Saturn's atmosphere

Goodbye Cassini: NASA spacecraft makes 'death plunge' into Saturn's atmosphere

Dozens of people on Friday watch the live feed from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California as the Cassini mission, carrying the Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph, a product of the University of Colorado's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, come to an end.

Huygens was a joint project of the European Space Agency, Italian Space Agency and NASA.

This Grand Finale, as NASA calls it, came about as Cassini's fuel tank started getting low after 13 years exploring the planet. The "plunge" ensures Saturn's moons will remain pristine for future exploration. NASA predicts that it will lose contact with Cassini at 7:55 AM ET, about 930 miles above Saturn's clouds.

"This is the final chapter of an wonderful mission, but it's also a new beginning", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

"Cassini's discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth". The spacecraft only has a few drops of fuel left, and rather than risk allowing a dead hunk of metal to crash into one of Saturn's potentially life-harboring moons, NASA chose to send its beloved spacecraft into the object of its decade-plus exploration.

In the upper reaches of Saturn's atmosphere, the Cassini spacecraft will use its thrusters to point its antenna toward Earth until it breaks up. In its approximately 300 orbits around Saturn, it discovered 2 oceans, 3 seas, hundreds of lakes, 12 out of the 62 known moons, and confirmed that the biggest moon, Titan, contains hydrocarbons essential for life. Cassini found plumes of water erupting into space and flew through the material for a closer look. In fact, life can grow in outer archs of the solar system, like on Titan and Encleadus.

That makes it in some ways more like a terrestrial planet.

The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini (e-Book)

Earlier this month, NASA's Cassini probe embarked on a death spiral around Saturn's orbit. JPL also designed, developed and assembled the spacecraft.

Saturn's ring is somewhat similar to the rings we see around baby stars that eventually form into planets.

The obedient little machine sent home data to the very end, revealing possible secrets of Saturn's atmosphere. What a way to go.

So, while facing the end, Cassini went out in a literal blaze of glory.

In 1997, NASA launched the Cassini spacecraft from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. During the second mission, Cassini conducted dozens of flybys of the ringed planet's icy moons. No fewer than seven moons orbiting Saturn were identified by the spacecraft.

"This is a bittersweet moment for all of us", said JPL Director Mike Watkins, "but I think it is more sweet than bitter because Cassini has been such an incredible mission".

Before its destruction, the bus-sized Cassini spacecraft fought Saturn's buffeting atmosphere to send back scientific data for even longer than NASA thought it would. Many in the crowd, engineers and scientists, had worked for twenty years on the Cassini mission. So we bid au revoir to our trusty orbiter which has mesmerized us over the years with the wealthy of information and images it's beamed back to us from millions of miles away.

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