The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on Friday after 20 years in space and 13 years studying Saturn. Called the “Grand Finale” by NASA, the spacecraft took a suicidal plunge toward the planet before it vaporized.
The Cassini mission was a unified effort by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency to study Saturn. The spacecraft launched from Cape Canaveral in 1997. It traveled over two billion miles, passing Venus twice, Earth and Jupiter before reaching the ringed planet seven years later in July 2004.
For the past 13 years, Cassini has studied Saturn’s atmosphere, taken almost half a million images and discovered moons. And most importantly, scientists learned that two moons, Enceladus and Titan, could potentially be habitable based on their environments.
So why did NASA crash Cassini? The spacecraft was running out of fuel, and scientists were worried there was a small chance that once it runs on empty and communication is lost, the spacecraft could collide and contaminate one of Saturn’s moons.
Instead, NASA launched Cassini one a final mission: to crash into Saturn and collect new data on its final descent. Since April, the spacecraft has been navigating around Saturn’s rings. It finally entered Saturn’s upper atmosphere at 6:30 a.m. ET on Friday, diving toward the planet around 70,000 miles per hour. Earth received its final signal at 7:55 a.m.
What’s next after this “Grand Finale?” NASA’s Europa Clipper mission plans to launch in the 2020s. While this voyage will be focusing on Jupiter’s icy moon, the mission will use information collected from Cassini.
Some of the scientists working on the mission have been involved for nearly three decades when planning began. And while the day was bittersweet, now Cassini will forever be a part of Saturn, a planet anyone can see with the naked eye.