See Cassini's last image before it died at Saturn

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The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of Caltech, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

Its instruments maintained contact with Earth until the last seconds of the probe's remarkable journey across the Solar System, sending data back to Earth in nearly real time.

The Cassini space probe mission ended today when the probe made its final destructive plunge into Saturn. "Project manager, off the net".

So in April, Cassini was directed into the previously unexplored gap between Saturn's cloud tops and the rings.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency.

When Cassini arrived at Saturn, where one "year" lasts 29.5 Earth years, the gas giant went through northern winter, and Cassini was there to witness the planet's change of seasons.

This monochrome view is the last image taken by the imaging cameras on NASA's Cassini spacecraft. The spacecraft revealed the structure of Saturn's rings and, by delivering the Huygens probe to the moon Titan, executed the first landing of a spacecraft in the outer solar system. Earlier this week, NASA flew Cassini past Titan one last time, taking advantage of the moon's gravitational pull to slingshot the spacecraft toward Saturn. It looks toward Saturn's night side, lit by reflected light from the rings, and shows the location where the spacecraft would enter the planet's atmosphere hours later. Even more gathered at nearby California Institute of Technology.

Head of spacecraft operations Julie Webster called "loss of signal", followed by Project Manager Earl Maize announcing "end of mission" as the spacecraft began to break up in Saturn's atmosphere.

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Telemetry indicated that the spacecraft put up a noble fight.

Carolyn Porco, leader of Cassini's imaging team who was a proud member of the team for a long time said, "I consider it the start of life, part two".

The end came about half a minute later than NASA had anticipated. The final price tag was US$3.9 billion.

"This is the final chapter of an awesome mission, but it's also a new beginning", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "But there was a lot of Kleenex". "Thanks, and farewell, faithful explorer". The photos, fantastic. But Cassini was a mission that was just always there. Nothing from Earth has landed farther.

With Cassini running on empty and no gas station for about a billion miles, NASA chose to go out Thelma & Louise-style. This disposal method ensures Enceladus and Titan remain pristine for future exploration.

Even in its months-long death spiral, Cassini collected unprecedented observations. On the tiny white dot peering through the rings (pictured below), the entire mission team sat waiting to hear that their spacecraft successfully completed its mission-ending dive. A little before initiating the final maneuver, Cassini also captured images of the water spouts from the south pole of Enceladus one final time. "We'll smile. And we'll want to go back", the USA space agency said.

The Cassini Virtual Singers - a group of JPL employees who perform Cassini-themed parodies of popular music - rewrote the lyrics to "Seasons of Love", a ballad from the musical "Rent".

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