For the science lovers!
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft launched on Oct. 15, 1997, and spent seven years looping around the solar system before it finally reached its destination. The mission entered orbit around Saturn on June 30, 2004 (PDT), carrying the European Huygens probe. After its four-year prime mission, Cassini’s tour was extended twice.
Its key discoveries have included the global ocean with indications of hydrothermal activity within Saturn’s moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on Titan. The two-story spacecraft has revealed that ocean worlds are more common in our solar system than anyone knew, watched moonlets form in Saturn’s rings and found conditions suitable for life on two of the planet’s moons. Cassini followed in the footsteps of the Voyager and Galileo missions, becoming the last big spacecraft to explore the outer solar system.
In the ultimate sacrifice for science, the Cassini spacecraft hurled itself into Saturn’s frigid atmosphere early Friday, collecting data until ripped apart by the strain of the dive.
All signals from the craft ceased at 7:55 am ET. Engineers predicted the craft would soon be tumbling out of control, unable to point its communication antenna in the right direction. It was expected to disintegrate within a few minutes of losing contact with mission controllers, making a flash that might have been visible to powerful telescopes on Earth.
In a sign of the extraordinary scope of the mission, Cassini actually burned up like a meteor 83 minutes earlier, but it took that long for the last signal to arrive at Earth. The spacecraft may be gone after the finale, but its enormous collection of data about Saturn—the giant planet itself, its magnetosphere, rings and moons—will continue to yield new discoveries for decades.
Check out a full overview and facts about Cassini’s grand finale in the links below!