So Long, Cassini! Says Goodbye to the Saturn Probe

It looks toward the planet's night side, lit by reflected light from the rings, and shows the location at which the spacecraft would enter the planet's atmosphere hours later.

Controllers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory sent a final command Friday morning to the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn.

What did we learn?: The device revealed more information on Saturn's rings' structure, and it offered a glimpse into two of the planet's moons: Titan and Encleadus, which are "prime targets in the search for life beyond Earth", The Washington Post reported. But the agency didn't want to risk Cassini accidentally crashing into one of these moons and spreading around Earth microbes. Launched in 1997, Cassini traveled seven years through and across 2.2 billion miles of space to reach Saturn. "Titan, with its methane lakes and Enceladus, with its geysers of salty water".

"We've had an incredible 13-year journey around Saturn, returning data like a giant firehose, just flooding us with data", said project scientist Linda Spilker with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "In 2004, we never dreamt we'd be here in 2017 still talking about Cassini and collecting science data", he said.

"The signal from the spacecraft is gone and within the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft", Earl Maize, the program manager said from mission control just after 4:55 a.m. local time. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute) This image of Saturn's rings was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on September 13, 2017. The hitchhiking European Huygens landed on big moon Titan in 2005.

Late a year ago, the Cassini spacecraft executed a daring set of ring-grazing orbits.

The spacecraft's fateful dive is the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings.

Now, its final encounter with the ringed beauty, will be its demise. Cassini's last image, taken at 3:59PM ET on Thursday, shows the general area where the spacecraft impacted Saturn. The spacecraft emptied 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.

Even though the mission's end was planned for years, it didn't make it any easier to watch lines of data come back indicating that Cassini had broken apart in Saturn's atmosphere, becoming a part of the planet it studied at close range for 13 years. We all realise the absurdity of thinking of machines like we think of people, and to be plunged into sadness when those machines fight to stay alive, beating back desperately - and futilely - against the forces that will eventually send them careening into oblivion.

Many grounds telescoped were invited to witness the glorious event though spotting the explosion from the distance of a billion miles was nearly impossible. It took a while for Cassini's last signal from Saturn to travel the vast distance through space and then get picked up by giant receiving antennas in Australia. The final signal was received by the Deep Space Network.

During its time at Saturn, the probe has re-shaped our understanding of the ringed planet and its place in the solar system, sending back wonderful photos and scientific data about the world's moons, rings, and environment.

  • Tracy Klein