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NASA's groundbreaking Cassini space craft dead after 20 years exploring Saturn

16 September 2017
NASA's groundbreaking Cassini space craft dead after 20 years exploring Saturn

On Friday morning at about 7a.m. ET, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will send its final data on Saturn back to mission control, before burning up and plunging into the heart of the planet.

The spacecraft, which was built by the European Space Agency and whose mission was managed by JPL for NASA, was launched in 1997 and reached the ringed planet in 2004.

When Cassini left earth on October 15, 1997, astronomers had speculations about the planet.

"Our spacecraft has entered Saturn's atmosphere, and we have received its final transmission", it tweeted, three minutes before 2pm SAST. En route, it has made multiple close approaches to the planet itself, travelling within the innermost of its rings, and sending back detailed images of the atmosphere.

The mission's final calculations predict loss of contact with the Cassini spacecraft will take place on Friday at 7.55 a.m. EDT (5.25 pm Friday India time).

The final photos taken by NASA's Cassini Saturn orbiter have begun coming down to Earth, and you can see them all.

The spacecraft's dive to the planet is the final step of the mission, which was to take pictures and collect key information about its environment.

"We've had an incredible 13-year journey around Saturn, returning data like a giant firehose, just flooding us with data", said project scientist Linda Spilker with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Cassini captured this view of Saturn's rings on September 13, 2017.

The probe transmitted all of its data, including the final images, back to earth.

The 22 by 13 foot (6.7 by 4 meter) spacecraft is also credited with discovering icy geysers erupting from Enceladus, and eerie hydrocarbon lakes made of ethane and methane on Saturn's largest moon, Titan. 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.

Armed with a one-megapixel camera, then considered state-of-the-art, the Cassini spacecraft began its seven year voyage to Saturn. "The Cassini mission has taught us so very much", he said. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute) Saturn's active, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus sinks behind the giant planet in a farewell portrait from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

In 2005, the Cassini orbiter released a lander called Huygens on Titan, marking the first and only such landing in the outer solar system, on a celestial body beyond the asteroid belt.