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Farewell Cassini: Saturn spacecraft makes fiery, final dive

17 September 2017, 01:11 | Bernard Bryant

Mission accomplished: Saturn probe Cassini ends 20-year journey

Cassini's final pictures of Saturn before suicidal dive into planet

Before its final plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, Cassini had executed roughly four months of final orbits between the planet and its rings-something that had never been done before-and also took goodbye photographs of Saturn, Titan, and Enceladus, among others.

No other mission has ever explored this unique region.

For the spacecraft, Saturn was bright and the Sun was overhead as it plowed into the gas giant planet's swirling cloud tops at about 70,000 miles (113,000 kilometers) per hour.

Cassini departed Earth in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004.

As planned, data from eight of Cassini's science instruments were beamed back to Earth, according to NASA.

One of the most successful space mission's, Cassini, has come to spectacular end.

In its last hours, Cassini took final images, including Enceladus setting behind Saturn; Saturn's rings; Titan's lakes and seas; and an infrared view of Saturn.

Cassini's final pictures of Saturn before suicidal dive into planet
Cassini Disintegrates in Saturn's Atmosphere, Ending 20-year Journey

Team members have already said their goodbyes, but will raise glasses in a final salute. Cassini captured the image using its narrow-angle camera at a distance of 1.3 million kilometres from Enceladus, and about 1 million kilometres from Saturn. It has radiated across our solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone.

MOONS: Saturn has 62 known moons, including six discovered by Cassini. At this morning's press conference, project manager Earl Maize appeared a little teary when he said that Cassini had been a faithful companion all these years, but added this also is a time of "serenity" knowing that "we did what we needed to do". "It will be at least a decade until we have another similar spacecraft, if serious work is started now", planetary scientist Seth Jacobson said in a statement. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on April 2, 2016. Its fuel tank is nearly empty, and it is simply time to end the $3.9 billion mission.

In a recently completed study, a variety of potential mission concepts are discussed, delivered to NASA in preparation for the next Decadal Survey, including orbiters, flybys and probes that would dive into Uranus' atmosphere to study its composition.

So flight controllers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, are still at their posts early Friday morning, watching as the final radio signals roll in from Cassini.

When will a follow-on to Cassini fly?

That includes the pictures it sent right up until the end, taking last photos of the system over Thursday and then sending back samples of Saturn's atmosphere at the same time as it was being destroyed by it.

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

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