Cassini's 13 Years Exploring Saturn Just Came To An End

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NASA's next grand odyssey to the giant planets and their moons won't get off the ground until the 2020s, when it's due to launch a spacecraft to Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter that's thought to harbor a hidden ocean and perhaps even life.

"The signal from the spacecraft is gone and within the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft", said program manager Earl Maize from mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, just after 4:55 a.m. local time, according to The Washington Post.

"Congratulations to you all", Maize announced to applause. "Cassini is now part of the planet it studied", Cassini's team said on Twitter Friday morning. It gathered more than 635 gigabytes of science data and took more than 450,000 images. But rather than careen into a canyon, the plucky probe took a final plunge into the object of its obsession.

"We call loss of signal", NASA officials reported during the live stream of the mission's end. (NASA / JPL / ASI / University of Arizona / University of Leicester) One of the last pictures sent back by NASA's Cassini orbiter shows Titan, a smog-covered moon of Saturn, with its hydrocarbon lakes visible toward the top of the image.

Watkins added that nearly everything we know about Saturn comes from the Cassini mission.

The spacecraft originally launched in 1997 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

If and when a spacecraft is sent back to Saturn, it will arrive at a place ever so slightly touched by humans. At about 07:55 EDT (11:55 GMT) the probe dove into the planet's atmosphere, sending back information up until the last moment before eventually burning up in the atmosphere.

The twin Voyagers swung by Saturn in the 1970s and '80s, giving scientists a rough outline of the planet and its moons.

LASP Research Associate Glen Stewart says Saturn is an exciting destination, "because it's the only example of an astrophysical disc that we can actually get up close to and look at". To avoid a random collision with one of Saturn's moons or Saturn itself (which could have led to contamination of the soil by Earth bacteria), engineers made a decision to put Cassini in a terminal dive through Saturn's atmosphere, to ensure it burned completely. Though very different, the two moons have the potential to have developed life. "That's risky. We had to wait until the end of the mission to take that risk".

At 9:56 pm AEST time, radio contact with the 22ft-long nuclear-powered probe was lost as it tumbled to its demise 930 miles above the cloud tops of the planet.

"We don't have a gas gauge".

Over 260 scientists from 17 countries and hundreds of engineers worked with Cassini throughout the entire mission. Instead, mission controllers had to estimate the amount of fuel used by each maneuver. The biggest, by far, is the first one discovered way back in the 1655: Titan, which slightly outdoes Mercury. It reshaped our view of Saturn and discovered tantalizing water geysers on the moon Enceladus and methane seas on fellow Saturn moon Titan, changing ideas about where life might be able to grab a toehold in our solar system.

"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.

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