Farewell: Cassini makes its final plunge to Saturn

Project manager Earl Maize, center, left, and flight director Julie Webster hug in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017, in Pasadena after confirmation of Cassini's demise.

"Congratulations to you all", Maize announced to applause.

The spacecraft's fateful dive was 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.

Cassini's final plunge toward Saturn, with tick marks representing time intervals of 2 minutes, leading to the spacecraft's entry into the atmosphere.

But four years has quickly grown into 13 impressive years, allowing Cassini to watch the slow progression of Saturn's changing seasons.

Having expended nearly all of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, NASA said Cassini was intentionally put on a path to plunge into the gas giant to ensure Saturn's moons - in particular the ice-covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity - remained pristine for future exploration.

NEXT UP: Scientists would love to return to Enceladus or Titan to search for any potential life. After spending countless years investigating Saturn and its moons, today is the culmination of that journey as Cassini begins its death orbit down into Saturn. "And so for me, that's why it's truly a civilization-scale mission, one that will stand out among other missions, anywhere". "Because we were able to measure their composition with Cassini's instruments, we could show that (tiny particles from those eruptions) are the source of the E Ring". "We saw these pictures and said, 'Oh my God, this is so amazing!'"

It's precisely because of its successes that Cassini had to die.

A graphic of the final orbit of Cassini.

This monochrome view is the last image taken by the imaging cameras on NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

A Goodbye Kiss to Titan.

At about 3:30 a.m. California time on Friday, the spacecraft entered Saturn's atmosphere at a speed of about 77,000 miles per hour.

For the last thirteen years, Cassini has been orbiting Saturn, sending back extraordinary images and data from the ringed planet and its moons.

The Cassini mission gave scientists an unprecedented view of the sixth planet from the Sun. Two of Saturn's moons - Enceladus and Titan - are considered tantalizing places that could potentially host life, and NASA wants to continue studying these worlds in the future. It was the first probe ever to orbit Saturn and entered orbit in 2004.

"Who knows how many PhD theses might be in just those final seconds of data?" It will take just a few minutes for it to be completely destroyed. That's when radio signals from the spacecraft - its last scientific gifts to Earth - came to an abrupt halt.

In the wee hours of September 15, the spacecraft reconfigured itself to shift from a recording device to a transmitting probe. The spike shrank, then flickered, then flatlined.

Exactly 499 seconds later, Cassini's last signal finally reached the waiting radio dish in California before the transmission disintegrated too, becoming both static and history.

There was utter silence at mission control. The plan to end with a solstice mission, followed by a plunge into Saturn, was put in place about seven years ago. "Project manager, off the net".

  • Joey Payne