Over the years, Cassini has made many discoveries about Saturn, identifying news moons and revealing hidden secrets about the planet's ring, among other things. Better that, they figured, than Cassini accidentally colliding with a moon that might harbor life and contaminating it. But the agency didn't want to risk Cassini accidentally crashing into one of these moons and spreading around Earth microbes. The spacecraft only has a few drops of fuel left, and rather than risk allowing a dead hunk of metal to crash into one of Saturn's potentially life-harboring moons, NASA made a decision to send its beloved spacecraft into the object of its decade-plus exploration.
When it launched, Cassini-Huygens was the biggest, most complex interplanetary spacecraft ever flown. California Institute of Technology operated by NASA saw more people congregated to celebrate the day. This includes the revelation of oceans on Titan and Enceladus. The vehicle has also taught us much about the unique nature of Titan, showing that the moon has lakes and rivers of methane on its surface.
And if you haven't been paying attention to Cassini's mission at Saturn, well, you've missed out.
Cassini's date with death had been planned for months. The signal of its last message didn't reach Earth until 83 minutes after the spacecraft had vanished, due to its distant location.
"We're trying to find out exactly what is coming from the rings and what is due to the atmosphere", Hunter Waite, Cassini team lead for the mass spectrometer instrument and an atmospheric scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, said at the September 13 news conference. These projects launched spacecraft into deep-space, in 1977 and 1989 respectively, to explore the farthest planets in our solar systems.
During many flybys, Cassini monitored the dynamic Titan using its camera suite and an instrument called VIMS, a Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, to clarify the makeup of Saturn, its rings, and moons.
The probe beamed its final photos of Saturn to Earth on Thursday. NASA hopes that the spacecraft will now help them in getting an inside out view of Saturn in the last stage. It also captured some final images of Titan and close-ups of Saturn's rings. After nearly 20 years in space, NASA's Cassini spacecraft, carrying the LASP-built UltraViolet Imaging Spectrograph, lost its signal at 5:55 a.m. MDT as it incinerated on a dive toward Saturn. The pattern was first recorded by the Voyager spacecraft in 1980, although it was not discovered in the data until eight years later.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has fallen silent as it plunged into Saturn's atmosphere this morning, as it vaporised within minutes. It sent back its final wisps of data as it burned up, and eventually disintegrated in a ball of fire. That's because of the distance between Saturn and Earth, which spans almost a billion miles.
With the loss of Cassini, the space around Saturn has gone dark. We'll receive those signals sent at the speed of light, 52 minutes later.
Just because Cassini no longer exists doesn't mean the work is over.
The Cassini mission gave scientists an unprecedented view of the sixth planet from the Sun. The spacecraft slammed headlong into Saturn's atmosphere just hours ago, putting a fiery exclamation point on what has been a truly historic mission.
Friday morning, NASA confirmed "Cassini's final dive is happening" and its final signal to Earth had been received.