Cassini's Saturn mission comes to dramatic end

The Cassini spacecraft has spectacularly concluded its 13-year mission to Saturn, plunging into the ringed planet's atmosphere and ceasing its data collection from the planet.

Cassini, the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, made the last of 22 farewell dives between the planet's rings and surface on September 15.

The spacecraft then burned up as it headed straight into the gas giant's crushing atmosphere, surviving for just over a minute before being broken apart.

An image Cassini took of Saturn.
An image Cassini took of Saturn. Photo credit: Reuters

Cassini had run out of fuel, and Nasa believed it should not be able to simply go uncontrolled among Saturn and its moons.

Instead it was sent on a final dive, ending a mission that provided groundbreaking discoveries, including seasonal changes on Saturn, the moon Titan's resemblance to a primordial Earth, and a global ocean on the moon Enceladus with ice plumes spouting from its surface.

"The mission has been insanely, wildly, beautifully successful," Curt Niebur, Cassini program scientist, said.

A polar storm on Saturn, captured by Cassini.
A polar storm on Saturn, captured by Cassini. Photo credit: Reuters

Upon the spacecraft's destruction, NASA's Earl Maize - who led the Cassini mission - spoke to his fellow controllers.

"Congratulations to you all. This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft and you're all an incredible team," he said.

"I'm going to call this end of mission. Project manager off the net."

There were emotional scenes at the end of the mission.
There were emotional scenes at the end of the mission. Photo credit: Getty

The spacecraft provided near real-time data on the atmosphere until it lost contact with Earth, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

Spilker said Cassini's latest data on the rings had shown they had a lighter mass than forecast. That suggests they are younger than expected, at about 120 million years, and thus were created after the birth of the solar system, she said.

The unique six-sided jet stream at Saturn's north pole, taken by Cassini.
The unique six-sided jet stream at Saturn's north pole, taken by Cassini. Photo credit: Reuters

During its final orbits between the atmosphere and the rings, Cassini also studied Saturn's atmosphere and took measurements to determine the size of the planet's rocky core.

Cassini has been probing Saturn, the sixth planet from the sun, and its entourage of 62 known moons since July 2004.

The mission has provided enough data for almost 4000 scientific papers.

Cassini above Saturn.
Cassini above Saturn. Photo credit: Reuters

Reuters

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