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NASA's Cassini spacecraft at Saturn nears finale

NASA's Cassini spacecraft at Saturn nears finale

Updated September 15th, 8:45AM ET: This article was updated to include Cassini's last image ever taken.

The circle shows where NASA believes Cassini burned up in Saturn's atmosphere. Once the thrusters are maxed out, there will be nothing left for Cassini to do. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute) As it glanced around the Saturn system one final time, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured this view of the planet's giant moon Titan. 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.

And then there are the photos. The "plunge" ensures Saturn's moons will remain pristine for future exploration.

Despite 13 years in Saturn's orbit, there are still many unanswered questions.

During the hours before the end, Cassini sent its last batch of images showing Saturn and its moons, and then it streamed back data from instruments that sampled Saturn's atmosphere and its magnetic field. Just after 3:30 a.m. California time on Friday, Cassini entered Saturn's atmosphere, plummeting at a pace of about 77,000 miles per hour. In 2004, it arrived in the Saturn system, carrying with it a robotic passenger in form of the Huygens probe, contributed to the mission by the European Space Agency, or ESA.

"Even in those last few seconds, Cassini managed to continue its rewriting of the textbooks and its legend", JPL Director Michael Watkins said. Spacecraft operations chief Julie Webster has proof.

So, while facing the end, Cassini went out in a literal blaze of glory.

The epic mission's legacy will live on in the thousands of pictures it has taken and the data that will fuel new scientific results for decades to come.

Wonderful real-life photo of Jupiter captured by Cassini in 2000.

The mission was fantastic to be sure. I took this wonderful mission, this gold and white explorer in the realm of giant planets, for granted.

Sean Hsu, a researcher at the University of Colorado at Boulder who works on Cassini's Cosmic Dust Analyzer, flew out with his wife and two children to attend. "It has been a lot of new science, a lot of new data, and suddenly there will be no more data". Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but weren't hopeful it would be spotted against the vast backdrop of the solar system's second largest planet.

In a JPL auditorium minutes after the end, science planner Jo Pitesky gazed up at the video from mission control with a slightly stricken look on her face. "It won't go very deep, because it is not a probe created to go deep, but still deeper than anything else".

"There was speculation that the moon had something to do with the E Ring", McEwen says. It will just float in space. Leaving it to drift around Saturn, like two old friends chilling together unto eternity, was no longer an option because Cassini could contaminate the life on Enceladus if it accidentally crashed there. It's a new one.

Astronomical events have been on the public's mind as of late. Titan shone as a brilliant speck nearby.

Over the course of its long mission, Cassini's achievements were legion. It was kind of sad, but Cassini had been there for a long time and had taken such fantastic photos. "I'm hoping we can do it, I'm not going to promise".

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