NASA’s Cassini spacecraft takes death plunge into Saturn after nearly 20 years in space

Sept 15 (Reuters) - U.S. space agency NASA received the final signal from its Cassini spacecraft, which ended a groundbreaking 13-year Saturn mission on Friday with a meteor-like plunge into the planet's atmosphere, transmitting data until the final moment.

Cassini, the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn, ended its mission at 7:55 a.m. EDT (1155 GMT), shortly after it lost contact with Earth as it entered the gas giant's crushing atmosphere at about 70,000 miles an hour (113,000 km per hour), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) said.

"Our spacecraft has entered Saturn's atmosphere, and we have received its final transmission," NASA in a post on Twitter, via its official @CassiniSaturn profile.

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NASA's Cassini sends back stunning new images of Saturn's rings

The camera was pointing toward SATURN-RINGS, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The camera was pointing toward SATURN-RINGS, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated. 

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The camera was pointing toward SATURN-RINGS, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated. 

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The camera was pointing toward SATURN-RINGS, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated. 

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The camera was pointing toward SATURN-RINGS, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated. 

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The camera was pointing toward SATURN-RINGS, and the image was taken using the CL1 and GRN filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated. 

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The camera was pointing toward SATURN-RINGS, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated. 

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The camera was pointing toward SATURN-RINGS, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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The end of Cassini's odyssey, which began with its launch in 1997 and a seven-year journey to the ringed planet, was met with applause, hugs and tears from NASA officials after its final transmission was received, according to video footage on the space agency's website.

Other scientists took to Twitter to share their goodbyes.

"Farewell Cassini, how far you’ve come. On this eve, in fiery death, Saturn & you are one. VIP (Vaporize In Peace): 2004-2017," astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said in a Twitter post‏ late on Thursday.

Cassini's final transmissions are expected to include unprecedented data from the atmosphere's upper fringe, about 1,190 miles (1,915 km) above Saturn's cloud tops. The data took 86 minutes to reach NASA antennas in Canberra, Australia.

"Not only do we have an environment that just is overwhelming with an abundance of scientific mysteries and puzzles, but we've had a spacecraft that's been able to exploit it," Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said at a news briefing on Wednesday.

SEASONS

Cassini's final dive ended a mission that gave scientists a ringside seat to the sixth planet from the Sun. The craft's discoveries included seasonal changes on Saturn, a hexagon-shaped pattern on the north pole and the moon Titan's resemblance to a primordial Earth.

Cassini also found a global ocean on the moon Enceladus, with ice plumes spouting from its surface. Enceladus has become a promising lead in the search for places outside Earth that could support life.

The spacecraft has produced 450,000 images and 635 gigabytes of data since it began probing Saturn and its 62 known moons in July 2004.

Cassini is a cooperative project between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency, and was launched into space in October 1997 from Cape Canaveral in Florida.

With the spacecraft running low on fuel, NASA crashed it into Saturn to avoid any chance of it someday colliding with and contaminating Titan, Enceladus or another moon that has the potential for indigenous microbial life.

Cassini started a series of 22 orbital dives in April, using Titan's gravity to slingshot itself into the unexplored area between the planet and its rings. The spacecraft studied Saturn's atmosphere and took measurements to determine the size of the planet's rocky core.

NASA scientists have said Cassini's final photo as it heads into Saturn's atmosphere will likely be of gaps in the rings caused by tiny moons. (Reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Gina Cherelus in New York; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Bernadette Baum)

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