NASA crashed the $4 billion Cassini spacecraft into Saturn. It was awesome.

For 13 years, Cassini explored the gas giant and its moons. On Friday, it ended its mission in an elegant dive.

 

 

 

On Friday, September 15, at 7:55:46 am Eastern time, NASA watched its 20-year-old, $4 billion-plus spacecraft crash into Saturn.

The space agency had no other choice. Cassini was nearly out of fuel and had already been stretched years beyond its intended mission duration. Keeping it going risked potentially contaminating one of Saturn’s moons — like Enceladus, an ice world that has some ingredients for life, or Titan, a dynamic moon where it rains methane — with microbes from Earth.

 

 

And so the spacecraft ended its existence by literally going where no human-made object has gone before: into Saturn’s atmosphere.

 

 

But up through its very last moments, Cassini was conducting a scientific investigation. As it descended into Saturn’s atmosphere, several of its instruments were turned on, including the mass spectrometer, which could essentially “sniff” the atmosphere and determine the chemical compounds therein. That data was beamed back in real time, and will be analyzed in the coming weeks and months.

Cassini has made discoveries that have changed our understanding of Saturn and the cosmos at large. The spacecraft discovered whole new moons around Saturn, lakes of methane on Titan, jets of water erupting from Enceladus. It expanded our understanding where life could possibly exist in our solar system and in the broader universe. And it gave us a pristine window to observe Saturn’s rings, an environment believed to be similar to the rings of debris that formed the entire solar system.

 

 

But the ending is bittersweet: Scientists dedicated decades of work to the mission and the study of Saturn, and Cassini ends its run with some key Saturn mysteries still unsolved.

 

Cassini’s final day was its most dramatic. Here’s what happened.

 

 

The crash was one last spectacular moment in Cassini’s “grand finale”

 

Cassini looks at Saturn’s north pole. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 

 

For the past several months, Cassini has made 22 orbits in and out of the region between Saturn and its rings, a place where no spacecraft has gone before. There, Cassini made the careful measurements needed to assess the mass of the rings and ultimately determine their age. (Preliminary analysis suggests they’re younger than expected.)

 

 

These harrowing inner-ring passes were saved for the very end of the mission, because NASA’s scientists didn’t know if there would be debris in this space that could have destroyed the craft. In fact, Cassini didn’t encounter much dust or debris in this space at all, which in itself is a new discovery about the Saturn system.

 

 

On September 11, a final pass-by of the moon Titan put Cassini on a collision course with Saturn (check it out in the animation below). Earl Maize, the project manager of the mission, called this pass “a kiss goodbye.” And it was goodbye. There was no way to stop the spacecraft from crashing after passing Titan.

 

The mission’s scientists — many of whom have worked on Cassini since its inception in the 1980s — were overflowing with sentiment for the SUV-size craft.

 

 

“Our families have gotten to know each other, in some cases our children have grown up together, and now in the final two weeks we’re sharing the end of this incredible mission,” Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist, said. Cassini has spent 13 years orbiting Saturn. It has been in space for 20.

 

 

The mission’s scientists — many of whom have worked on Cassini since its inception in the 1980s — were overflowing with sentiment for the SUV-size craft.

“Our families have gotten to know each other, in some cases our children have grown up together, and now in the final two weeks we’re sharing the end of this incredible mission,” Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist, said. Cassini has spent 13 years orbiting Saturn. It has been in space for 20.

 

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