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Almost two decades after it took off from Earth, NASA scientists captured the final pieces of data from the Cassini spacecraft as it plummeted into Saturn on Friday morning.
The “grand finale” to the Cassini mission marks the end to one of the most successful planetary space missions in history.
“The signal from the spacecraft is gone and within the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft,” Earl Maize, the program manager said from mission control just after 4:55 a.m. local time. “This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you’re all an incredible team.”
According to NASA, one of the final pieces of data captured by the spacecraft was an infrared photo it took while plummeting to the planet. It shows a spot on Saturn’s dark side where it disintegrated after communications were severed.
“One of the most beautiful planets we can imagine,” Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen said of Saturn during a press briefing.
Cassini was launched on October 15, 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 40. It was the first probe ever to orbit Saturn and entered orbit in 2004.
During those almost 20 years, Cassini flew through space and nearby Saturn to gather groundbreaking information on the makeup and structure of Saturn’s rings.
It also delivered the Huygens probe to Titan, becoming the first spacecraft to land in the outer solar system.
“Most of what we have in science textbooks about Saturn comes from Cassini,” JPL Director Mike Watkins said to the Washington Post. “The discoveries are so compelling, we have to go back.”
The total cost of the planetary exploration mission was $3.26 billion.
Friday’s “grand finale” was planned out well in advance by NASA. Back in April, the spacecraft started a series of orbits that had the goal of looking in between and behind Saturn’s rings.
Just days before it was set to crash into Saturn, NASA decided to fly Cassini past Titan one final time. In doing so, the gravitational pull from the moon acted as a slingshot as it pushed Cassini toward Saturn on its last-ever ride.
At around 3:30 a.m. Pacific on Friday, Cassini officially entered Saturn’s atmosphere and was noted by NASA as travelling 77,000 miles per hour. All the while, it was collecting its last bits of data regarding Saturn’s atmosphere.
“Those last few seconds were our first taste of the atmosphere of Saturn,” Watkins said to The Post. “Who knows how many PhD theses are in that data?”
Here are some incredible images and videos taken by Cassini during its planetary exploration: