NASA's Cassini mission begins transmitting data

Aaron Brown
September 16, 2017

By now, NASA's Cassini spacecraft at Saturn should be disintegrated in the sky.

Launched in 1997, the 3.26 billion USA dollar Cassini-Huygens mission has been touring the Saturn system since arriving there in 2004.

Cassini in fact burned up like a meteor 83 minutes earlier as it dove through Saturn's atmosphere, becoming one with the giant gas planet it set out in 1997 to explore. Dutiful to the end, the spacecraft sampled Saturn's atmosphere Friday morning as it made its final plunge.

In it's photos of Saturn, it also managed to spy the Earth as a dot of blue light only rarely seen by our own deep space craft.

"This is the final chapter of an fantastic mission, but it's also a new beginning", said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Almost like we've taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings".

Since April 2017, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been writing the final, thrilling chapter of its remarkable 20-year-long story of exploration, its Grand Finale. NASA confirmed scientists lost contact with the probe at 7:55 a.m. EDT Friday.

The spacecraft's dive to the planet is the final step of the mission, which was to take pictures and collect key information about its environment.

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Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory Earl Maize said, "The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo".

"Through the Eyes of Cassini" is a free e-book released by NASA, which highlights the scientific key discoveries and intriguing images, sourced from its Cassini mission to the Saturn.

"The mission team hopes to gain powerful insights into the planet's internal structure and the origins of the rings, obtain the first-ever sampling of Saturn's atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings, and capture the closest-ever views of Saturn's clouds and inner rings", Nasa explains on its website.

Cassini's plunge brings to a close a series of 22 weekly "Grand Finale" dives between Saturn and its rings, a feat never before attempted by any spacecraft.

Cassini image of Saturn's geyser-blasting moon Enceladus, captured on September 13, 2017.

Even during Cassini's final moments, it will be beaming data back to Eart. Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but weren't hopeful it would be spotted against the vast backdrop of the solar system's second biggest planet. "Moreover, it carried in its cargo bay a smaller robotic probe, Huygens, built by the European Space Agency, which achieved a "soft landing" on Saturn's giant moon Titan, revealing lakes and rivers of liquid methane on that exotic world".

One of Cassini's most important discoveries was the existence of a global watery ocean under the icy surface of Enceladus that could conceivably harbour life.

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