Cassini spacecraft to plummet into Saturn

The earth as seen from Saturn

The earth as seen from Saturn

To mark the impending end of the mission, The Planetary Society released a video of its board member, "Star Trek" actor Robert Picardo, performing the "Le Cassini Opera," a humorous, musical farewell to the spacecraft. It also revealed that the rings of Saturn are not always stormy or full of dust. The spectrometer will attempt to investigate what material is from the rings and what material is part of the atmosphere.

On Monday, Cassini began its final orbit around Saturn. "But Cassini will not go quietly".

Just before 2am today the Cassini spacecraft sent a routine message, as it has done dozens of times before during its 4.9 billion-mile mission.

Cassini blasted off in October 1997 and arrived in Saturn's region of the solar system in 2004.

Along its way, Cassini (and its Titan-bound companion, the atmospheric entry probe Huygens) captured hundreds of thousands of images and taught us more about Saturn, its rings and many moons.

Why was Cassini's mission significant?

While many other options were considered - such as "parking" the spacecraft in orbit around Saturn - they didn't want to risk Cassini colliding with any of Saturn's moons.

These will include views of the moons Enceladus and Titan, which harbour huge volumes of liquid water beneath their icy surfaces and where scientists believe simple lifeforms might be able to eke out an existence.

The decision to destroy Cassini is mostly to do with trying to protect Saturn's moons from any potential manmade contamination.

Named after the 17 century Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini - who discoverer four of the planet's moons and a gap in its rings - the Cassini mission has completely transformed our understanding of Saturn and identified two moons that could potentially harbor life.

When Cassini first begins to encounter Saturn's atmosphere, the spacecraft's attitude control thrusters will begin firing in short bursts to work against the thin gas and keep Cassini's saucer-shaped high-gain antenna pointed at Earth to relay the mission's precious final data.

JPL Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker compared Cassini's grand finale to "a last look around your house or apartment just before you move out", when "memories across the years come flooding back".

But Friday's dive will be like no other. For over a decade, Cassini has orbited around Saturn 294 times, collected more than 600 GB of data, visited over a dozen moons and discovered at least seven new ones.

NASA's Cassini probe is a day away from its good bye. Maize said that moment is his pick for the most unbelievable part of the Cassini mission. The Cassini mission could barely compete in dinner time conversation up against missions to mars, especially not when it was only in the planning stage. "You can think of Cassini as becoming the first Saturn probe".

Cassini is quickly running out of rocket fuel, and if left to its own devices, the orbiter would wander around the Saturn system uncontrolled, eventually crashing into whatever body that's unlucky enough to be in its way.

When Cassini, the craft that has spanned generations of researchers makes its final plunge, Larry and Jason will be together for the end of a journey they started on almost 30 years ago without even realizing it. Cassini has collected 450,000 images using a visible light camera. We learned there are 3-D structures in the rings.

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