Cassini finale: Saturn space probe completes its fiery demise

Thirteen years after reaching Saturn, NASA’s nuclear-powered Cassini spacecraft raced through its 294th and final orbit Thursday, collecting priceless data while hurtling toward a kamikaze-like plunge into the ringed planet’s atmosphere Friday, going out in a blaze of glory to wrap up an “insanely” successful mission.

Friday morning, NASA confirmed “Cassini’s final dive is happening” and its final signal to Earth had been received. “Cassini is now part of the planet it studied. Thanks for the science #GrandFinale,” NASA tweeted. 

During its last orbit, Cassini was programmed to snap a final few pictures of Saturn, its vast ring system, Titan and the small moon Enceladus Thursday in what mission managers were calling “the last picture show,” before turning its large dish antenna toward Earth to transmit the images and other data back to waiting scientists.

Titan and Enceladus, which harbors a saltwater ocean beneath an icy crust, host potentially habitable environments and rather than risk an eventual collision with an out-of-gas Cassini — and earthly contamination — NASA managers opted to crash the spacecraft into Saturn to eliminate any possible threat.

Saturn’s moon Enceladus sinks behind the giant planet as NASA’s Cassini spacecraft makes its final approach before burning up in Saturn’s atmosphere. 

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Virtually out of propellant, Cassini used a final gravitational nudge — a “goodbye kiss” — from Saturn’s smog-shrouded moon Titan earlier this week to precisely aim itself at a point on the planet’s dayside 10 degrees above the equator.

“That final flyby of Titan … put Cassini on an impacting trajectory and there is absolutely no coming out of it,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We are going so deep into the atmosphere the spacecraft doesn’t have a chance of coming out.”

“These final images are sort of like taking a last look around your house or apartment just before you move out,” said Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “You look at your old rooms, and memories across the years come flooding back. In the same way, Cassini is…

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