Watch Live as NASA's Cassini Finally Faces Its Fiery Doom


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. Saturn is an enormous ball of gas with no discernible surface, and when Cassini plunges in the probe will become a fireball.

The Royal Mail (UK) issued in 2012 a postage stamp that featured a Cassini image of Saturn and its rings.

"He got involved with the engineers doing a bunch of programming with the Pathfinder mission and after his six-day stint he was ready to leave and the engineers said 'Well Jason you can't leave your software's not done.' So he stayed another week or so and he just got hooked", Larry Soderblom told IBT.

The space between the rings and the planet also is home to another mystery: extremely small, nearly smoke-like, particles of dust. The spectrometer will attempt to investigate what material is from the rings and what material is part of the atmosphere. This final in-depth trip provided some valuable information about the chemical composition of Saturn's atmosphere.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been given a freakish operatic tribute before it plunges into Saturn's atmosphere and is vaporised tomorrow night. "But Cassini will not go quietly".

"The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo", says Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. A joint mission with the European Space Agency, a single rocket sent Cassini and Huygens on a meandering path through the Solar System. Cassini also carried the Huygens probe, which landed on Titan, Saturn's largest moon, in 2005 and sent data about the moon's surface and atmosphere to Cassini for 72 minutes before the signal was interrupted by the horizon. The resulting information has contributed to almost 4,000 published scientific papers and some 5,000 people have worked on the mission over the years, according to NASA. The great benefit to throwing Cassini headlong into Saturn is that scientists will be able to take readings of Saturn, its rings, and its atmosphere at much closer distances than has ever been possible.

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One of the Cassini mission's most remarkable discoveries has been that Enceladus, a relatively small, icy moon of Saturn, has active plumes of water and organic molecules emanating from its south pole, as well as a subsurface saltwater ocean.

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

Cassini's mission has produced a treasure trove of scientific data and mesmerizing images. Not even Cassini's plutonium core will survive the plunge into Saturn's gravity well.

Even among NASA missions, Cassini really is an overachiever. Why is the program ending now after 13 years?

On Oct. 15, 1997, Cassini lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and began its seven-year journey to Saturn. Of Cassini's 162 targeted flybys of Saturn's 53 named and nine unnamed moons, 127 were of Titan. The reason for this seemingly callous disposal of the robotic explorer at the end of its 20-year mission is due to the spacecraft running out of the propellants needed to control its trajectory.

Twenty years after its launch to Saturn, NASA has set the Cassini orbiter on a course for certain destruction on Friday - but there's a decidedly positive spin to the $3.3 billion mission's end.