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Cassini's finale: NASA's last photos from their 20-year Saturn mission

16 September 2017

"The spacecraft is gone", Maize said at a post-mission news conference.

Cassini departed Earth in 1997 and arrived at the sixth planet from our sun in 2004. LASP designed, built and operated the UVIS instrument. The spacecraft revealed the structure of Saturn's rings and, by delivering the Huygens probe to the moon Titan, executed the first landing of a spacecraft in the outer solar system.

But two of Saturn's moons, ice-covered Enceladus and smog-covered Titan, are high on NASA's list for future exploration due to their potential for undersea life and prebiotic chemistry.

"This is the first time that we have found so numerous essential components for life in one place beyond our own planet", Perry said.

"In the words of our former governor here, 'We will be back, '" Zurbuchen said in Pasadena. Once the spacecraft ran out of fuel, NASA would not risk letting it remain aloft, where it might be knocked into Titan or Enceladus.

But Cassini's work has immediate use, too. Via Cassini, the probe sent back data, including the first images of the moon's surface, for 72 minutes after touchdown, and radio telescopes on Earth detected transmissions for some hours later.

The probe beamed its final photos of Saturn to Earth on Thursday. It also collected data that researchers hope will help them solve the mystery of the speed of Saturn's rotation.

"Even in those last few seconds, Cassini managed to continue its rewriting of the textbooks and its legend", JPL Director Michael Watkins said.

"For me, it's a happy day because we got data until yesterday, science data", Jouchoux said.

Minutes later Cassini vaporized, just a small flash of light streaking across an alien sky.

And the potential for extraterrestrial life in Saturn's neighborhood is exactly why Cassini, a $4 billion spacecraft, had to come to be destroyed. Mission control is quiet. The spike shrank, then flickered, then flatlined.

The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini (e-Book)

"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo".

There was utter silence at mission control. "Project manager, off the net". "It did exactly what it was supposed to do". For LASP, losing Cassini was like losing a team member. As with Voyager, the Mars rover Spirit and other prolific spacecraft, the team became more than attached to Cassini. The nonprofit Planetary Society filmed a short operatic tribute to the mission. Maize told the story of a 6-year-old boy from Florida who sent a letter to JPL inviting staff to his end-of-mission party. "It's not science in the ivory tower". Scientists like Helfenstein are especially interested to learn about the age of Saturn's main rings. "And way that she died". Conversations about the spacecraft's status were conducted in the same serious tones the flight team has always used.

Contact was lost with the Cassini spacecraft a minute after it reached an altitude of about 1,500 kilometres above the planet's estimated cloud tops.

The pioneering Cassini mission to Saturn came to its fiery conclusion right on schedule Friday morning and its demise was celebrated - with perhaps a tear or two in the eyes of some - at the University of Colorado, where one of its critical instruments was created. Instead, a viewing party was arranged on the campus of nearby Caltech. Many of these scientists and engineers have been working on this mission for decades.

"Not only were many new discoveries made, but the well-planned diversity of instrumentation and investigative cross-pollination among scientists of different disciplines allowed the discoveries to be analyzed and interpreted with great success". They put their career into Cassini and today it's coming to an end.

"It has been a tremendous mission to be a part of", he said.

With so much data left to analyze, Helfenstein emphasizes the importance of NASA's continued decision to encourage public participation in sifting through images and instrument data. In contrast to Saturn's rings, which extend all the way around the planet, some of Neptune's rings are only partial.

When Mate Adamkovics' astronomy and physics students go on to brilliant careers, they can attribute at least part of their professional knowledge to a attractive workhorse of a 20 Century spaceship called Cassini. Serendipitous observations showed that icy jets erupt from Enceladus.

"From my point of view, the most important question is whether or not life exists on Enceladus's subsurface ocean or at least the extent to which conditions for life to evolve exist there". Others have proposed similar missions to test for "biosignatures" in Titan's atmosphere.

No spacecraft has ever been so close to Saturn.

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Cassini's finale: NASA's last photos from their 20-year Saturn mission