Gallery: Controllers receive last signals before Cassini spacecraft demise


"This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're all an incredible team". "I hope you're all as deeply proud of this awesome 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. This means that we will not receive Cassini's last data transmission until 86 minutes after the fact. But rather than careen into a canyon, the plucky probe took a final plunge into the object of its obsession. In the final year, Cassini completed 22 orbits through a gap between Saturn and its rings.

The spacecraft originally launched in 1997 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Cassini has been humankind's proxy-visit to Saturn, a diminutive, polite and empathetic ambassador dispatched to learn more about a tremendous planet orbiting the same star we are, a veritable jewel of our neighbourhood. On the evening of 14 September, the Cassini spacecraft sent back its final images of the Saturn system.

"This is a bittersweet moment for all of us", said JPL Director Mike Watkins, "but I think it is more sweet than bitter because Cassini has been such an incredible mission".

Thank you, Cassini, for launching not just a mission of Saturn discovery, but also a more personal journey for me. Ever since, the human probe reported important data to NASA, including the structure of Saturn's rings, and the discovery of two moons, Titan and Enceladus, as potential targets in the search for life beyond our planet.

Results from the Cassini spacecraft showed Enceladus has chemical energy that indicates life. "Scientists have worked on these their whole life".

According to NASA, one of the final pieces of data captured by the spacecraft was an infrared photo it took while plummeting to the planet.

The end of the mission is "not unexpected", McEwen says.

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The Cassini probe had been scheduled to study the Saturn system until 2008, but the mission was given two extensions that stretched its lifetime into 2017.

"We don't have a gas gauge".

Cassini was launched, in part, because of the work that the Voyager and Galileo missions had done to satisfy scientist's hunger. Instead, mission controllers had to estimate the amount of fuel used by each maneuver. From that point, the spacecraft will begin to burn up like a meteor. The biggest, by far, is the first one discovered way back in the 1655: Titan, which slightly outdoes Mercury.

In that time, it discovered six more moons around Saturn, three-dimensional structures towering above Saturn's rings, and a giant storm that raged across the planet for almost a year.

"It's a little bit embarrassing to confess, but we don't know how long a day is on Saturn", Michele Dougherty of Imperial College in London tells NPR's Palca.

During its time at Saturn, the probe has re-shaped our understanding of the ringed planet and its place in the solar system, sending back fantastic photos and scientific data about the world's moons, rings, and environment.

That plunge happened at about 3:31 a.m., when Cassini entered the atmosphere about 10 degrees north of the equator, falling at around 34 kilometers per second.