Nasa kills off Cassini after 20 year mission

by 15/09/2017 19:43:00 0 comments 1 Views
  • Cassini has finally completed its suicide mission, plunging into Saturn's atmosphere
  • The mission was completed at 07:56 EST (12:54 BST) today, when Cassini was travelling at 70,000mph
  • The radio signal could be seen to flatline, indicating that Cassini had been vapourised in the atmosphere
  • Animation released by Nasa ahead of the event revealed what the journey by Cassini would have looked like
  • Nasa destroyed the robot to avoid crashing into and contaminating nearby moons that may harbor alien life

By Shivali Best and Cheyenne Macdonald and Tim Collins and Phoebe Weston For Mailonline

Published: 20:26 EDT, 14 September 2017 | Updated: 19:43 EDT, 15 September 2017

After 20 years in space, Nasa's Cassini spacecraft has finally completed its suicide mission, plunging into Saturn's atmosphere.

While we were unable to see Cassini's dying moments, an animation released by Nasa reconstructs the probe's last few minutes as it tumbled through Saturn's atmosphere at 77,000mph.

The confirmation of the mission was received at Nasa's Jet Propulsion unit at 07:56 EST (12:56 BST) today.

Upon receiving the news, Earl Maize, program manager for Cassini, announced: 'The signal from the spacecraft has gone. Congratulations, this has been an incredible mission and incredible spacecraft.'  

In its thirteen years at Saturn and two decades in space, the $4 billion (£3 billion) Cassini probe has transformed our understanding of the ringed planet and its moons.

It has watched giant storms on the gas giant, recorded its ring system in stunning detail, and revealed incredible new insights on the potential habitability of Saturn's moons.

The decision to kill off Cassini was taken because the craft would soon run out of fuel and become impossible to steer. Scientists feared a collision with Titan or Enceladus - two of Saturn's moons that in the past 10 years have shown a potential to host simple life. 

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The radio signal could be seen to flatline as Cassini was vapourised in the atmosphere
The radio signal could be seen to flatline as Cassini was vapourised in the atmosphere
Pictured is an artist's impression of the moment just before Cassini's death
Pictured is an artist's impression of the moment just before Cassini's death

After 20 years in space, Nasa's Cassini spacecraft has finally completed its suicide mission, plunging into Saturn's atmosphere. The confirmation of the mission was received at Nasa's Jet Propulsion unit at 07:56 EST (12:56 BST) today

Nasa's animation imagine what the 'death dive' would have looked like 

First, they expect the probe to have shed layers of insulating material. 

Then its large external structures, including the 11ft wide dish antenna and 30ft long magnetometer boom will have weakened and broken apart, followed by other body-mounted components, and eventually the leading face of the space craft itself.

It is also possible that propellant left in Cassini's fuel tanks may have exploded.

Meanwhile, atmospheric friction will have sent temperatures soaring. 

By the time what was left of Cassini reached the cloud tops it would have been transformed into a glowing fragmenting meteor, hotter than the surface of the sun.

Finally, intense heat and pressure would have caused every part of the space craft to melt and dissociate, scattering its atoms to the winds of Saturn.

Cassini's death plunge was the climax of a 'grand finale' that saw the probe slip between Saturn and its rings in 22 daring orbits.

 Nasa's animation imagines what the 'death dive' would have looked like. First, they expect the probe to have shed layers of insulating material
 Nasa's animation imagines what the 'death dive' would have looked like. First, they expect the probe to have shed layers of insulating material

 Nasa's animation imagines what the 'death dive' would have looked like. First, they expect the probe to have shed layers of insulating material

Then its large external structures, including the 11ft wide dish antenna and 30ft long magnetometer boom, will have weakened and broken apart
Then its large external structures, including the 11ft wide dish antenna and 30ft long magnetometer boom, will have weakened and broken apart

Then its large external structures, including the 11ft wide dish antenna and 30ft long magnetometer boom, will have weakened and broken apart

 This would be followed by other body-mounted components, and eventually the leading face of the space craft itself
 This would be followed by other body-mounted components, and eventually the leading face of the space craft itself

 This would be followed by other body-mounted components, and eventually the leading face of the space craft itself

Meanwhile, atmospheric friction will have sent temperatures soaring.
Meanwhile, atmospheric friction will have sent temperatures soaring.

Meanwhile, atmospheric friction will have sent temperatures soaring.

By the time what was left of Cassini reached the cloud tops it would have been transformed into a glowing fragmenting meteor, hotter than the surface of the sun.
By the time what was left of Cassini reached the cloud tops it would have been transformed into a glowing fragmenting meteor, hotter than the surface of the sun.

By the time what was left of Cassini reached the cloud tops it would have been transformed into a glowing fragmenting meteor, hotter than the surface of the sun.

Finally, intense heat and pressure would have caused every part of the space craft to melt and dissociate, scattering its atoms to the winds of Saturn.
Finally, intense heat and pressure would have caused every part of the space craft to melt and dissociate, scattering its atoms to the winds of Saturn.

Finally, intense heat and pressure would have caused every part of the space craft to melt and dissociate, scattering its atoms to the winds of Saturn.

Fifteen minutes before the end, the voice of Dr Maize could be heard in a live stream from mission control telling his team: 'This might be a good time to pass out the farewell peanuts.'

Earlier Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Mike Watkins told a Nasa interviewer: 'It's kind of a bitter-sweet event for all of us.

'For me personally, it's more sweet than bitter, because Cassini has been such a fantastic mission.

During the live feed, experts from Nasa described the event as 'the last hour of the last chapter of Cassini's Grand Finale.'  

CASSINI'S DISCOVERIES IN ITS 20-YEAR MISSION

Cassini launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida in 1997, then spent seven years in transit followed by 13 years orbiting Saturn.

In 2000 it spent six months studying Jupiter before reaching Saturn in 2004.

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 nearly a year.

On 13 December 2004 it made its first flyby of Saturn's moons Titan and Dione.

On 24 December it released the European Space Agency-built Huygens probe on Saturn's moon Titan to study its atmosphere and surface composition.

There it discovered eerie hydrocarbon lakes made from ethane and methane.

In 2008, Cassini completed its primary mission to explore the Saturn system and began its mission extension (the Cassini Equinox Mission).

In 2010 it began its second mission (Cassini Solstice Mission) which lasted until today when it exploded in Saturn's atmosphere.

In December 2011, Cassini obtained the highest resolution images of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

In December of the following year it tracked the transit of Venus to test the feasibility of observing planets outside our solar system.

In March 2013 Cassini made the last flyby of Saturn's moon Rhea and measured its internal structure and gravitational pull.

In July of that year Cassini captured a black-lit Saturn to examine the rings in fine detail and also captured an image of Earth.

In April of this year it completed its closest flyby of Titan and started its Grande Finale orbit which finished today.

'The mission has changed the way we think of where life may have developed beyond our Earth,' said Andrew Coates, head of the Planetary Science Group at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London.

'As well as Mars, outer planet moons like Enceladus, Europa and even Titan are now top contenders for life elsewhere,' he added. 'We've completely rewritten the textbooks about Saturn.'

The confirmation of Cassini's death was at 07:56 EST (12:56 BST), when Mr Maize said: 'The signal from the spacecraft has gone. Congratulations, this has been an incredible mission and incredible spacecraft'
The confirmation of Cassini's death was at 07:56 EST (12:56 BST), when Mr Maize said: 'The signal from the spacecraft has gone. Congratulations, this has been an incredible mission and incredible spacecraft'

The confirmation of Cassini's death was at 07:56 EST (12:56 BST), when Mr Maize said: 'The signal from the spacecraft has gone. Congratulations, this has been an incredible mission and incredible spacecraft'

Project manager Earl Maize, centre, shakes hands with Bill Heventhal (left) head of Uplink Operations in mission control at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Lab
Project manager Earl Maize, centre, shakes hands with Bill Heventhal (left) head of Uplink Operations in mission control at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Lab

Project manager Earl Maize, centre, shakes hands with Bill Heventhal (left) head of Uplink Operations in mission control at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Lab

Cassini science team members Nora Alonge (R), Scott Edgington (C) and Jo Pitesky (L) hug as the final loss of signal from the Cassini spacecraft is confirmed
Cassini science team members Nora Alonge (R), Scott Edgington (C) and Jo Pitesky (L) hug as the final loss of signal from the Cassini spacecraft is confirmed

Cassini science team members Nora Alonge (R), Scott Edgington (C) and Jo Pitesky (L) hug as the final loss of signal from the Cassini spacecraft is confirmed

Cassini science team member Nora Alonge reacts after the final loss of signal from the Cassini spacecraft is confirmed, indicating Cassini's destruction in Saturn's atmosphere and the end of Cassini's 20-year mission
Cassini science team member Nora Alonge reacts after the final loss of signal from the Cassini spacecraft is confirmed, indicating Cassini's destruction in Saturn's atmosphere and the end of Cassini's 20-year mission

Cassini science team member Nora Alonge reacts after the final loss of signal from the Cassini spacecraft is confirmed, indicating Cassini's destruction in Saturn's atmosphere and the end of Cassini's 20-year mission

CASSINI'S FINAL DATA COLLECTION 

At 4:55 am ET (9:55 am BST), Cassini's engineers received the signal that the probe had started a five-minute roll.

This allowed it to point the instrument that sampled Saturn's atmosphere, the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), into the direction of the oncoming gases of the planet.

The INMS is capable of determining the chemical, elemental and isotopic composition of the gaseous and volatile components of the neutral particles and the low energy ions in Saturn's atmosphere.

It will allow scientists to measure the amounts, in atomic mass per elementary charge, of water vapor, methane, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, any simple organics, complex organics and other components identified in the atmosphere.

The craft is transmitting this data at a rate of 27 kilobits per second (3.4 kilobytes per second) or 0.027 megabits per second (Mbps)

The average home broadband speed in the UK is 4.3Mbps upload and 36.2Mbps download.

With just 10 minutes to go before the expected loss of signal, the live feed turned its attention to the control room, where it could be seen that Cassini was travelling at around 75,000 mph.

At this point, Cassini only had one per cent of its fuel sources left. But the radio loss depended on how much of a fight Cassini's thrusters put up against Saturn's atmosphere

Cassini burned up like a meteor 83 minutes before the signal died as it dove through Saturn's atmosphere, becoming one with the giant gas planet it set out in 1997 to explore.

But it took that long for the news to arrive at Earth a billion miles away.

The only spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn, Cassini showed us the planet, its rings and moons up close in all their glory. 

Perhaps most tantalizing, ocean worlds were unveiled by Cassini and its hitchhiking companion, the Huygens lander, on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbor life.

Cassini snapped its 'last memento photos' of the Saturn system Thursday. 

Dutiful to the end, the spacecraft sampled Saturn's atmosphere Friday morning as it made its final plunge. 

Flight controllers wearing matching purple shirts stood and embraced and shook hands.

More than 1,500 people, many of them past and present team members, had gathered at California's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for what was described as both a vigil and celebration. 

Even more congregated at nearby California Institute of Technology, which runs the lab for NASA.

Project scientist Linda Spilker noted Cassini has been running 'a marathon of scientific discovery' for 13 years at Saturn. 

Saturn's active, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus sinks behind the giant planet in a farewell animation from NASA's Cassini spacecraft

Members of staff who have worked on the project were very tearful upon hearing the news that Cassini had completed its suicide mission
Members of staff who have worked on the project were very tearful upon hearing the news that Cassini had completed its suicide mission

Members of staff who have worked on the project were very tearful upon hearing the news that Cassini had completed its suicide mission

Cassini team members embrace following the successful mission. Cassini has discovered six more moons around Saturn, three-dimensional structures towering above Saturn's rings, and a giant storm that raged across the planet for nearly a year
Cassini team members embrace following the successful mission. Cassini has discovered six more moons around Saturn, three-dimensional structures towering above Saturn's rings, and a giant storm that raged across the planet for nearly a year

Cassini team members embrace following the successful mission. Cassini has discovered six more moons around Saturn, three-dimensional structures towering above Saturn's rings, and a giant storm that raged across the planet for nearly a year

Cassini Spacecraft Operations Team Manager Julie Webster gets emotional after the mission is completed. In 2010 it began its second mission (Cassini Solstice Mission) which lasted until today when it exploded in Saturn's atmosphere
Cassini Spacecraft Operations Team Manager Julie Webster gets emotional after the mission is completed. In 2010 it began its second mission (Cassini Solstice Mission) which lasted until today when it exploded in Saturn's atmosphere

Cassini Spacecraft Operations Team Manager Julie Webster gets emotional after the mission is completed. In 2010 it began its second mission (Cassini Solstice Mission) which lasted until today when it exploded in Saturn's atmosphere

With just 10 minutes to go before the expected loss of signal, the live feed turned its attention to the control room, where it could be seen that Cassini was travelling at around 75,000 miles/hour
With just 10 minutes to go before the expected loss of signal, the live feed turned its attention to the control room, where it could be seen that Cassini was travelling at around 75,000 miles/hour

With just 10 minutes to go before the expected loss of signal, the live feed turned its attention to the control room, where it could be seen that Cassini was travelling at around 75,000 miles/hour

Engineer Mar Vaquero monitored the status of Cassini spacecraft as it entered the atmosphere of Saturn in mission control at JPL. Scientists wanted to prevent Cassini from crashing into Enceladus or Titan - and contaminating those pristine worlds
Engineer Mar Vaquero monitored the status of Cassini spacecraft as it entered the atmosphere of Saturn in mission control at JPL. Scientists wanted to prevent Cassini from crashing into Enceladus or Titan - and contaminating those pristine worlds

Engineer Mar Vaquero monitored the status of Cassini spacecraft as it entered the atmosphere of Saturn in mission control at JPL. Scientists wanted to prevent Cassini from crashing into Enceladus or Titan - and contaminating those pristine worlds

IO manager Luis Morales monitors the status of Cassini in its final moments.  At 4:55 am ET (9:55 am BST), Cassini's engineers received the signal that the probe had started a five-minute roll
IO manager Luis Morales monitors the status of Cassini in its final moments.  At 4:55 am ET (9:55 am BST), Cassini's engineers received the signal that the probe had started a five-minute roll

IO manager Luis Morales monitors the status of Cassini in its final moments.  At 4:55 am ET (9:55 am BST), Cassini's engineers received the signal that the probe had started a five-minute roll

When asked about Cassini's fate, Earl Maize, program manager for Cassini, said: 'Cassini's fate has been sealed. There's absolutely nothing else we can do. At 4:55am [12:55 BST], we'll be entering Saturn's atmosphere. Cassini won't notice Saturn until the last 90 seconds. Then it will lose the battle, and become totally vapourised' 
When asked about Cassini's fate, Earl Maize, program manager for Cassini, said: 'Cassini's fate has been sealed. There's absolutely nothing else we can do. At 4:55am [12:55 BST], we'll be entering Saturn's atmosphere. Cassini won't notice Saturn until the last 90 seconds. Then it will lose the battle, and become totally vapourised' 

When asked about Cassini's fate, Earl Maize, program manager for Cassini, said: 'Cassini's fate has been sealed. There's absolutely nothing else we can do. At 4:55am [12:55 BST], we'll be entering Saturn's atmosphere. Cassini won't notice Saturn until the last 90 seconds. Then it will lose the battle, and become totally vapourised' 

Cassini program manager at JPL, Earl Maize, left, and spacecraft operations team manager for the Cassini mission at Saturn, Julie Webster, right, embrace after the successful mission
Cassini program manager at JPL, Earl Maize, left, and spacecraft operations team manager for the Cassini mission at Saturn, Julie Webster, right, embrace after the successful mission

Cassini program manager at JPL, Earl Maize, left, and spacecraft operations team manager for the Cassini mission at Saturn, Julie Webster, right, embrace after the successful mission

Cassini Spacecraft Operations Team Manager Julie Webster reacts in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting into Saturn's atmosphere
Cassini Spacecraft Operations Team Manager Julie Webster reacts in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting into Saturn's atmosphere

Cassini Spacecraft Operations Team Manager Julie Webster reacts in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting into Saturn's atmosphere

Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but weren't hopeful it would be spotted from a billion miles away. Pictured is team manager Julie Webster
Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but weren't hopeful it would be spotted from a billion miles away. Pictured is team manager Julie Webster

Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but weren't hopeful it would be spotted from a billion miles away. Pictured is team manager Julie Webster

Engineer Nancy Vandermay (L) wipes her tears in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 'The mission has changed the way we think of where life may have developed beyond our Earth,' said Andrew Coates, head of the Planetary Science Group at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London
Engineer Nancy Vandermay (L) wipes her tears in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 'The mission has changed the way we think of where life may have developed beyond our Earth,' said Andrew Coates, head of the Planetary Science Group at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London

Engineer Nancy Vandermay (L) wipes her tears in mission control at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. 'The mission has changed the way we think of where life may have developed beyond our Earth,' said Andrew Coates, head of the Planetary Science Group at Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London

'So we're here today to cheer as Cassini finishes that race,' she said.

The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting into Saturn's atmosphere.

Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but weren't hopeful it would be spotted from a billion miles away.

This image of Saturn's northern hemisphere was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on 13 September 2017. It is among the last images Cassini sent back to Earth. The view was taken in visible red light using the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera at a distance of 684,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) from Saturn
This image of Saturn's northern hemisphere was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on 13 September 2017. It is among the last images Cassini sent back to Earth. The view was taken in visible red light using the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera at a distance of 684,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) from Saturn

This image of Saturn's northern hemisphere was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on 13 September 2017. It is among the last images Cassini sent back to Earth. The view was taken in visible red light using the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera at a distance of 684,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) from Saturn

A last look at Titan: The imaging cameras obtained this view at approximately the same time that Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer made its own observations of the impact area in the thermal infrared
A last look at Titan: The imaging cameras obtained this view at approximately the same time that Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer made its own observations of the impact area in the thermal infrared

A last look at Titan: The imaging cameras obtained this view at approximately the same time that Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer made its own observations of the impact area in the thermal infrared

This image made available by Nasa shows the moon Enceladus and the edge of Saturn as seen from the Cassini spacecraft on its descent towards the planet on Wednesday 13 September 2017
This image made available by Nasa shows the moon Enceladus and the edge of Saturn as seen from the Cassini spacecraft on its descent towards the planet on Wednesday 13 September 2017

This image made available by Nasa shows the moon Enceladus and the edge of Saturn as seen from the Cassini spacecraft on its descent towards the planet on Wednesday 13 September 2017

Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing a last look at Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft plunges into the planet's atmosphere. This image was captured on September 13
Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing a last look at Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft plunges into the planet's atmosphere. This image was captured on September 13

Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing a last look at Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft plunges into the planet's atmosphere. This image was captured on September 13

This is believed to be the final image taken by Cassini. The camera was pointing towards Saturn, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. It was taken at 12:59 EST (19:59 BST) yesterday, and recieved by Nasa at 02:03 EST (07:03 BST) this morning
This is believed to be the final image taken by Cassini. The camera was pointing towards Saturn, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. It was taken at 12:59 EST (19:59 BST) yesterday, and recieved by Nasa at 02:03 EST (07:03 BST) this morning

This is believed to be the final image taken by Cassini. The camera was pointing towards Saturn, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. It was taken at 12:59 EST (19:59 BST) yesterday, and recieved by Nasa at 02:03 EST (07:03 BST) this morning

Cassini dived into Saturn's atmosphere travelling at a speed of roughly 70,000 miles per hour, before sending out a final signal that will radiate across the solar system 'like an echo.' The image above is one of its last ever, taken on September 13
Cassini dived into Saturn's atmosphere travelling at a speed of roughly 70,000 miles per hour, before sending out a final signal that will radiate across the solar system 'like an echo.' The image above is one of its last ever, taken on September 13

Cassini dived into Saturn's atmosphere travelling at a speed of roughly 70,000 miles per hour, before sending out a final signal that will radiate across the solar system 'like an echo.' The image above is one of its last ever, taken on September 13

This image of Saturn's outer A ring features the small moon Daphnis and the waves it raises in the edges of the Keeler Gap. The image was taken by Nasa's Cassini spacecraft on 13 September. It is among the last images Cassini sent back to Earth
This image of Saturn's outer A ring features the small moon Daphnis and the waves it raises in the edges of the Keeler Gap. The image was taken by Nasa's Cassini spacecraft on 13 September. It is among the last images Cassini sent back to Earth

This image of Saturn's outer A ring features the small moon Daphnis and the waves it raises in the edges of the Keeler Gap. The image was taken by Nasa's Cassini spacecraft on 13 September. It is among the last images Cassini sent back to Earth

This view of Saturn's A ring features a lone 'propeller', one of many such features created by small moonlets embedded in the rings as they attempt, unsuccessfully, to open gaps in the ring material
This view of Saturn's A ring features a lone 'propeller', one of many such features created by small moonlets embedded in the rings as they attempt, unsuccessfully, to open gaps in the ring material

This view of Saturn's A ring features a lone 'propeller', one of many such features created by small moonlets embedded in the rings as they attempt, unsuccessfully, to open gaps in the ring material

This Grand Finale, as NASA calls it, came about as Cassini's fuel tank started getting low after 13 years exploring the planet. 

Scientists wanted to prevent Cassini from crashing into Enceladus or Titan - and contaminating those pristine worlds. 

And so in April, Cassini was directed into the previously unexplored gap between Saturn's cloud tops and the rings. Twenty-two times, Cassini entered the gap and came out again. The last time was last week.

The leader of Cassini's imaging team, Carolyn Porco, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley, was so involved with the mission for so long that now, 'I consider it the start of life, part two.'

Cassini departed Earth in 1997 and arrived at the solar system's second largest planet in 2004. The European Huygens landed on big moon Titan in 2005. Nothing from Earth has landed farther.

In all, Cassini collected more than 453,000 images and traveled 4.9 billion miles. It was an international endeavor, with 27 nations taking part. The final price tag was $3.9 billion.

Talking about seeing the first images that were received from Cassini it 2004, Dr Maize said: 'Thinking about them still gives me goosebumps now.'

According to NASA, Cassini used its visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) to observe the impact site, which was, at the time, on Saturn¿s night side. Then, it was lit only by light reflected from the planet¿s massive rings. This image shows a last look at the icy moon Enceladus, thought to contain the ingredients to support microbial life
According to NASA, Cassini used its visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) to observe the impact site, which was, at the time, on Saturn¿s night side. Then, it was lit only by light reflected from the planet¿s massive rings. This image shows a last look at the icy moon Enceladus, thought to contain the ingredients to support microbial life

According to NASA, Cassini used its visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) to observe the impact site, which was, at the time, on Saturn's night side. Then, it was lit only by light reflected from the planet's massive rings. This image shows a last look at the icy moon Enceladus, thought to contain the ingredients to support microbial life

If all is according to schedule, the spacecraft captured its final image of the mission at 12:58 EST (17:58 BST) yesterday, revealing the location at which it will make its fateful entry
If all is according to schedule, the spacecraft captured its final image of the mission at 12:58 EST (17:58 BST) yesterday, revealing the location at which it will make its fateful entry

If all is according to schedule, the spacecraft captured its final image of the mission at 12:58 EST (17:58 BST) yesterday, revealing the location at which it will make its fateful entry

TIMELINE FOR THE DEATH OF CASSINI

September 12, 21:19 ET (02:19 BST), Earth started receiving Cassini's last data on Titan.

September 14, 15:58 ET (20:58 BST), Cassini's cameras took their last pictures.

September 14, 16:22 ET (21:22 BST), Cassini's last batch of data—including those last pictures—began streaming back to Earth. 

At 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT) on Friday, it will lose contact with mission operators following its entry into Saturn's harsh atmosphere. The graphic above shows the relative altitudes of Cassini's final five passes through Saturn's upper atmosphere, compared to the depth it reaches upon loss of communication with Earth
At 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT) on Friday, it will lose contact with mission operators following its entry into Saturn's harsh atmosphere. The graphic above shows the relative altitudes of Cassini's final five passes through Saturn's upper atmosphere, compared to the depth it reaches upon loss of communication with Earth

At 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT) on Friday, it will lose contact with mission operators following its entry into Saturn's harsh atmosphere. The graphic above shows the relative altitudes of Cassini's final five passes through Saturn's upper atmosphere, compared to the depth it reaches upon loss of communication with Earth

September 15, 03:14 ET (08:14 BST), The spacecraft rolled into position to collect atmospheric data during the descent.

September 15, 06:31 ET (11:31 BST), Cassini entered Saturn's atmosphere.

September 15, 06:32 ET (11:32 BST), Cassini's antenna pointed away from Earth, leading to a loss of signal. Shortly afterwards, the spacecraft vaporized.

September 15, 07:00-08:30 ET (11:00-12:30 BST), NASA livestreamed the scene at mission control at NASA JPL, with live commentary about the end of the mission.

September 15, 07:55 ET (11:55 BST), Earth will register the loss of signal, indicating the end of Cassini.

NASA's Cassini probe is counting its final hours before one last plunge into Saturn today that will cap a fruitful 13-year mission that greatly expanded knowledge about the gas giant. The spacecraft is on its last approach to the gas giant planet after mission navigators confirmed today that it's on course for its 'death dive'
NASA's Cassini probe is counting its final hours before one last plunge into Saturn today that will cap a fruitful 13-year mission that greatly expanded knowledge about the gas giant. The spacecraft is on its last approach to the gas giant planet after mission navigators confirmed today that it's on course for its 'death dive'

NASA's Cassini probe is counting its final hours before one last plunge into Saturn today that will cap a fruitful 13-year mission that greatly expanded knowledge about the gas giant. The spacecraft is on its last approach to the gas giant planet after mission navigators confirmed today that it's on course for its 'death dive'

The spacecraft is now just hours away from its planned demise, after 13 years of groundbreaking discoveries at the ringed planet

REACTIONS ON SOCIAL MEDIA 

Several people, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, have taken to social media to express their sadness at the end of the Cassini mission:

The spacecraft began its final approach to Saturn on Wednesday, after mission navigators confirmed it was on course for its entry into the planet's atmosphere. This image shows one of its last looks at the moon Titan, captured on Sept 13
The spacecraft began its final approach to Saturn on Wednesday, after mission navigators confirmed it was on course for its entry into the planet's atmosphere. This image shows one of its last looks at the moon Titan, captured on Sept 13

The spacecraft began its final approach to Saturn on Wednesday, after mission navigators confirmed it was on course for its entry into the planet's atmosphere. This image shows one of its last looks at the moon Titan, captured on Sept 13

This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn's atmosphere on 15 September 2017.
This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn's atmosphere on 15 September 2017.

This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn's atmosphere on 15 September 2017.

Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing a last look at Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft plunges into the planet's atmosphere. This photo was captured on Sept 13
Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing a last look at Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft plunges into the planet's atmosphere. This photo was captured on Sept 13

Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing a last look at Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft plunges into the planet's atmosphere. This photo was captured on Sept 13

In 13 years studying Saturn, Cassini has made countless groundbreaking observations. Here, it looks at Saturn's rings one last time before diving into the atmosphere
In 13 years studying Saturn, Cassini has made countless groundbreaking observations. Here, it looks at Saturn's rings one last time before diving into the atmosphere

In 13 years studying Saturn, Cassini has made countless groundbreaking observations. Here, it looks at Saturn's rings one last time before diving into the atmosphere

Cassini flew by Titan one last time on Tuesday before transmitting images and scientific data from the flight. This image of Titan was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during the mission's final, distant flyby on Sept. 11, 2017
Cassini flew by Titan one last time on Tuesday before transmitting images and scientific data from the flight. This image of Titan was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during the mission's final, distant flyby on Sept. 11, 2017

Cassini flew by Titan one last time on Tuesday before transmitting images and scientific data from the flight. This image of Titan was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during the mission's final, distant flyby on Sept. 11, 2017

SATURN'S MOON ENCELADUS THOUGHT TO CONTAIN THE 'CHEMICAL ENERGY FOR LIFE'

During its deepest-ever dive into a plume from cracks in Enceladus' ice-covered ocean, the Cassini spacecraft detected the presence of hydrogen gas.

According to researchers, the only plausible source of this gas could be hydrothermal reactions between hot rocks and water in the ocean beneath the icy surface.

This same process, on Earth, provides energy for entire ecosystems around hydrothermal vents.

As a result, the researcher say there could be volatile species in these deep oceans. 

It means Enceladus may have the same single-celled organisms which began life on Earth, or more complex life still.

While they haven't found life itself on Enceladus, the researchers say the geochemical data 'could allow for this possibility.'

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