NASA's Cassini spacecraft burns up over Saturn

Still from a computer-animated film depicting Cassini's final orbits

View Slideshow Still from a computer-animated film depicting Cassini's final orbits. NASA JPL

Cassini ended its 13-year tour of the Saturn system with an intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn's moons - in particular Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity - remain pristine for future exploration.

In August 2009, Cassini had the opportunity to view Saturn at equinox, a special time when the Sun sits directly in line with the planet's rings.

Cassini will be doing science even after being gripped by Saturn's gravity, pulling it into destruction, by measuring the composition, temperature, and other properties of Saturn's atmosphere.

Scientists are already eager to go back and delve into the wet, wild worlds of Enceladus and Titan.

An image taken just days ago clearly shows the large gap in the middle of the ring known as the Cassini Division. It was discovered by Giovanni Cassini the 17th Century astronomer for whom the probe is named
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A September 14 image from Cassini's Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer shows the spot in Saturn's atmosphere (marked by a white ellipse) where the spacecraft met its demise a day later.

Along the way, Cassini revealed much about this best-known of the ringed planets (Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune each have rings as well). "I hope you're all as deeply proud of this unbelievable accomplishment".

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

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

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Even during its final descent, Cassini is sending new data about Saturn's atmosphere back to Earth. There is a complicated connection between the planets atmosphere and the rings.

"Earth received CassiniSaturn's final signal at 7:55 am ET". 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. "Thanks for the science", NASA tweeted.

Cassini is set to make groundbreaking scientific observations of Saturn, using eight of its twelve science instruments. The colors are changing and right at the top of Saturn's north pole, it's possible to see the distinctive hexagon-a six-sided weather pattern that is now bathed in sunlight. During the predawn hours, the spacecraft dipped into the Saturn clouds and was ripped apart. 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. There is prevalent and common life beyond Earth may truly be.

Earl Maize, program manager for NASA's Cassini spacecraft at the agency's Jet Propulsion Lab, and Julie Webster, spacecraft operations team manager for the Cassini mission at Saturn, embrace in an emotional moment for the entire Cassini team after the spacecraft plunged into Saturn, Friday, Sept. 15, 2017. The spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004. The hitchhiking European Huygens landed on big moon Titan in 2005.

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The Cassini mission began on October 15 1997 when the spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station aboard a Titan IVB/Centaur rocket.

Team members who have spent their careers working on the Cassini mission reflect on the epic journey. In April, Cassini began 22 close-in orbits that took it between and behind Saturn's rings. The only light hitting the rings is reflected light from Saturn itself.

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