Cassini spacecraft: 'Magnifying glass' at Saturn until end


The spacecraft Cassini is pictured above Saturn's northern hemisphere prior to making one of its Grand Finale dives in this NASA handout illustration obtained by Reuters August 29, 2017.

As Cassini plunged into Saturn, its sensors experienced the first taste of the planet's atmosphere, sending critical information to Earth until it disintegrated.

For the spacecraft, Saturn was bright and the Sun was overhead as it plowed into the gas giant planet's swirling cloud tops at about 70,000 miles (113,000 kilometers) per hour. After a seven year journey, it finally reached Saturn in 2004 and has been orbiting the planet for the past 13 years.

Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said that Cassini's discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything and shooked their view to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth.

"It's hard to see the end of Cassini", said Jonathan Lunine, a Cornell University scientist who's been with the mission from the beginning.

The latest images range from close-ups of Saturn's rings to snaps from farther afield.

"Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.

Before burning up in Saturn's atmosphere as scheduled on Friday, the spacecraft sent back the images, emptying its solid-state recorder of data and reconfiguring its systems to capture data of its final plunge. Cassini scanned across the planet and its rings on April 25, 2016, capturing three sets of red, green and blue images to cover this entire scene showing the planet and the main rings.

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The information Cassini gathered has enabled scientists to make discoveries that have warranted the publication of almost 4,000 scientific papers, according media reports. Its fuel tank is nearly empty, and it is simply time to end the $3.9 billion mission. My students and myself have at least five papers done with the Cassini data, to be submitted later this year.

20 years after its launch - NASA bid a teary, bittersweet farewell to one of its most historic missions.

NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA designed, built and operated Cassini in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

"On Titan, we have methane and ethane rain, and methane and ethane lakes and seas".

In the decades following Cassini, scientists hope to return to the Saturn system to follow up on the mission's many discoveries. That would make them relatively young compared with Saturn; perhaps a moon or comet came too close to Saturn and broke apart, forming the rings 100 million years ago.

Presented in RAW format, the photos have yet to be processed.

"This is the final chapter of an unbelievable mission, but it's also a new beginning", Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said in a statement.