After 20 years, NASA sends Cassini spacecraft into Saturn to be destroyed

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After 20 years, NASA sends Cassini spacecraft into Saturn to be destroyed

"It will radiate across the solar system for almost an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Three jumbotrons had been set up on a lawn outside the auditorium; they played a slickly produced NASA video showing some of Cassini's greatest images. The "plunge" ensures Saturn's moons will remain pristine for future exploration.

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.

At 7:55 am EDT, it was reported that Cassini is all ready to bid farewell to the world when the spacecraft's radio signal abruptly came to a halt.

"The lucky peanuts were there", NASA's associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, said later in reference to the traditional snacks laid out for key mission moments at JPL. The first close-up view of Titan revealed some Earth-like characteristics and influenced how scientists are looking for life in space.

The most important findings, however, were those considering Saturn's icy moon Enceladus. Some of that water even shoots out into space, creating giant plumes.

The two probes showed Titan has a startlingly Earth-like landscape, with rivers, lakes and seas filled with liquid methane and ethane.

That makes it in some ways more like a terrestrial planet.

For the last five months, Cassini has been completing its Grand Finale mission; a series of 22 orbits that each pass between Saturn and its spectacular rings. JPL also designed, developed and assembled the spacecraft. It could be years before researchers truly understand what Cassini saw during its final descent.

"The Cassini operations team did an absolutely stellar job guiding the spacecraft to its noble end", Earl Maize, Cassini project manager, said in the release. What a way to go.

Going out in a blaze of glory seems fitting.

Cassini departed Earth in 1997 and arrived at the sixth planet from our sun in 2004.

After Maize declared the operational phase of the $3.3 billion mission to be finished, the room melted into hugs, applause, cheers and more than a few tears. 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. During the predawn hours, the spacecraft dipped into the Saturn clouds and was ripped apart.

"These final images are sort of like taking a last look around your house or apartment just before you move out", said Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Mission scientists will examine the spacecraft's final observations in the coming weeks for new insights about Saturn, including hints about the planet's formation and evolution, and processes occurring in its atmosphere.

"Cassini-Huygens is a classic example of a "flagship" mission, accomplishing tremendous science in many disciplines over many years", says Alfred McEwen, a professor of planetary sciences at the University of Arizona. So we bid au revoir to our trusty orbiter which has mesmerized us over the years with the wealthy of information and images it's beamed back to us from millions of miles away.

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