Cassini spacecraft sends final images before taking death plunge

Space Science Institute

At least 150 students, faculty and staff gathered before dawn for bagels, beverages and a ringside seat, via a live feed from NASA TV, of the last gasp - in the form of a lost signal from space -- as Cassini lost its battle with Saturn's atmosphere and incinerated on a final dive into the ringed planet. "This will be the second instrument that I worked on to go into a neighboring planet".

Due to the travel time for radio signals from Saturn, which changes as both Earth and the ringed planet travel around the Sun, events now take place there 83 minutes before they are observed on Earth. Perhaps most tantalizing, ocean worlds were unveiled on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbor life. It was over in a minute or two.

"Thanks and farewell, faithful explorer", Maize said.

During its mission, Cassini made numerous scientific discoveries and significantly changed the way we think about our solar system.

Flight controllers wearing matching purple shirts stood and embraced and shook hands.

"Even better", chimed in Project Scientist Linda Spilker. She told reporters today that Cassini's interior was a comfortable room temperature until the probe's signal went silent.

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People from all over the world have traveled here to say goodbye to Cassini in the place where it was conceived, built and operated. Even more congregated at nearby California Institute of Technology, which runs the lab for NASA. Then, the spacecraft burned and disintegrated due to the heat and high pressure of the hostile atmosphere. On the first dive, Cassini beamed back an image of a massive hurricane near the planet's north pole where winds gusted at 1,200 miles per hour. The radio link actually held on a half-minute longer than expected.

"There are some things in this world that are just flawless: a child's laugh, a desert sunset... The net result has been huge advances in our knowledge, not just of the Saturnian system, but of fundamental processes that are common to the formation and evolution of our own and even planetary systems around other stars", Helfenstein said. Along the way, the spacecraft made countless other discoveries about the planet's rings, moons and atmosphere.

And yet, two memories make Cassini shine bright. The last time was last week.

When Cassini left earth on October 15, 1997, astronomers had speculations about the planet.

Cassini's Huygens probe also dropped beneath Titan's atmosphere and landed on its surface, giving astronomers an excellent view of it's terrain.

Cassini's plunge brings to a close a series of 22 weekly "Grand Finale" dives between Saturn and its rings, a feat never before attempted by any spacecraft. It took more than 450,000 images and flew 4.9 billion miles. It was an worldwide endeavor, with 27 nations taking part. The total cost of the mission was $3.9 billion.

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European space officials joined their USA colleagues to bid Cassini farewell.

Cassini-Huygens travelled to Saturn via a circuitous route, using the gravity assist technique to receive boosts in speed from the Earth, Venus, and Jupiter, and taking in an asteroid, Masursky, along the way.

There were some lighthearted touches during the morning. "Almost like we've taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings". Proposals are under consideration by NASA, but there's nothing official yet.

"It's been a great, fantastic, fantastic mission", Esposito said, "and we're looking forward to the last bits of information, to finish up the mission and to carry on our investigations here at the University of Colorado".

"This has truly been beyond my wildest dreams".

Julie Webster, spacecraft operations manager for Cassini, said she's been blasting the Moody Blues' "Your Wildest Dreams" in her auto the last few days.

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