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Cassini takes a final plunge into Saturn, ending its 20-year mission

Cassini takes a final plunge into Saturn, ending its 20-year mission

Plus, the spacecraft captured as much data as it could up until the very end.

Dutiful to the end, the Cassini snapped its last photos Thursday and sampled Saturn's atmosphere Friday morning as it made its final plunge.

Titan and Enceladus, which harbors a saltwater ocean beneath an icy crust, host potentially habitable environments and rather than risk an eventual collision with an out-of-gas Cassini - and earthly contamination - NASA managers opted to crash the spacecraft into Saturn to eliminate any possible threat. After losing contact with Earth, the spacecraft will burn up like a meteor.

For the last five months, Cassini has been completing its Grand Finale mission; a series of 22 orbits that each pass between Saturn and its spectacular rings. The imaging instrument on board has a wide angle camera and a narrow angle camera.

Between that journey and multiple orbits, NASA says Cassini has traveled 4.9 billion miles.

Cassini also beamed back an infrared image of the site of impact. But, ultimately, Cassini melted and broke apart in the fiery heat of its 69,000-mph (111 km/h) plunge into Saturn. As I recently told Space.com's parent company, Purch, in a blog post, Cassini is a mission that just keeps on giving.

Cassini helped confirm warm mineral water on Saturn's moon Enceladus, making the moon a potential breeding ground for life.

Just days before it was set to crash into Saturn, NASA made a decision to fly Cassini past Titan one final time. Its extended mission was one of the most successful for a NASA spacecraft in its history, and after 13 years of study it ultimately had to sacrifice its own life not because it was antiquated, but because its plutonium fuel source was finally running out.

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This image of Saturn's outer A ring features the small moon Daphnis and the waves it raises in the edges of the Keeler Gap. The propellers are named after aviators, and there are entire belts of propellers in some regions of the rings.

The first time we've seen a close-up view of Saturn at equinox.

The last flyby sealed Cassini's fate. The hydrocarbon rich atmosphere is extremely hazy and it is hard to see any features. Its lakes hold liquid methane, which could hold some new, exotic form of life. Cassini's last signal had just come in.

That "goodbye kiss" set Cassini on its final, fatal course.

"Already, Saturn is beckoning us to go back", Green said.

Orbiting the planet for 13 years, Cassini gathered information about the ringed world's moons as well as the planet itself.

"The Cassini operations team did an absolutely stellar job guiding the spacecraft to its noble end", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.

"It's a bittersweet, but fond, farewell to a mission that leaves behind an incredible wealth of discoveries that have changed our view of Saturn and our solar system, and will continue to shape future missions and research", Michael Watkins, director of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. "I hope you're all as deeply proud of this fantastic accomplishment, congratulations to you all, this has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're an incredible team, I am going to call this the end of mission", he added, to applause within the Mission Control room.


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