Cassini spacecraft vanishes, ending historic mission to Saturn

Cassini spacecraft vanishes, ending historic mission to Saturn

NASA's Cassini mission has begun transmitting data - including the final images taken by its imaging cameras - in advance of its final plunge into Saturn on Friday.

The $3.2 billion Cassini-Huygens mission - a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency - launched in October 1997 and arrived in orbit around Saturn on the night of June 30, 2004. That's when radio signals from the spacecraft - its last scientific gifts to Earth - came to an abrupt halt.

"Our spacecraft has entered Saturn's atmosphere, and we have received its final transmission", it tweeted, three minutes before 2pm SAST.

No spacecraft has ever ventured so close to the planet before.

Ground control sent the spacecraft into the atmosphere of Saturn at about 12.55PM on Friday, September 15, completing a 20-year long mission. (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.

Spacecraft Operations Manager Julie Webster announced the loss of signal within a minute of the predicted demise.

"We've had an incredible 13-year journey around Saturn, returning data like a giant firehose, just flooding us with data", said project scientist Linda Spilker with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

What did Cassini do?: Cassini obtains information about Saturn's atmosphere, orbit and nearby moons, and passes it along back to Earth, according to CNN. The probe dove into Saturn's upper atmosphere this morning, and NASA lost the vehicle's signal at 7:55AM ET, indicating it had broken apart irrevocably during its rapid descent toward the planet.

Just days before it was set to crash into Saturn, NASA made a decision to fly Cassini past Titan one final time.

Scientists wanted to prevent Cassini from crashing into the moons Enceladus or Titan - and contaminating those pristine worlds.

Several hours before Cassini burned up, its infrared imaging instrument pointed down at Saturn and took a picture of the spot where it was headed.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been vaporized.

One of Cassini's most important - and surprising - discoveries during its 13 years at Saturn was that the moon Enceladus has an ocean of liquid saltwater beneath its frozen surface.

And so in April, Cassini was directed into the previously unexplored gap between Saturn's cloud tops and the rings. "The Cassini mission has taught us so very much", he said.