NASA Officials Meet the End of Cassini's Voyage With Applause, Tears

Mission Saturn mind-boggling

In fact, Cassini's fatal plunge into Saturn was made to prevent the spacecraft from potentially infecting Saturn's moons with Earth bacteria, which might upset the extraterrestrial ecology or even wipe out undiscovered life.

Cassini took its last mission photo at 12:58pm on Thursday - an observation of where the spacecraft would enter Saturn's atmosphere.

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. During its 13 years long stay around Saturn, Cassini observed the birth of mini-moonlets in the rings of Saturn and spotted big hurricanes on the planet's poles.

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

The latest images range from close-ups of Saturn's rings to snaps from farther afield.

During the summer of 2017, the Cassini team used Keck Observatory to take near-infrared spectroscopic data of the regions near Saturn's equator, just as Cassini was diving between Saturn and its rings during its final orbits. ESA built the Huygens probe that separated from Cassini and flew down through the haze that surrounds Saturn's intriguing moon Titan, providing fantastic images and data about the atmosphere and surface. 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.

The information Cassini gathered has enabled scientists to make discoveries that have warranted the publication of almost 4,000 scientific papers, according media reports.

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"For me, September 15 is not the end of the mission". We've been talking to Cassini for years.

As the Cassini spacecraft ends its long journey rich with scientific and technical accomplishments, it is already having a powerful influence on future exploration. NASA extended the spacecraft's mission twice - first for two years and then for seven more years.

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.

"The signal from the spacecraft is gone", announced a NASA flight controller from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

When will a follow-on to Cassini fly?

Its lakes hold liquid methane, which could hold some new, exotic form of life. The statistics on how many bits of data and number of images it sent back to Earth is staggering.

NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen and planetary science division director Jim Green have been asked that question several times in recent days - when will the next Saturn probe be launched?

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