After epic mission, Cassini takes final plunge into Saturn [video]

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will end its 20-year mission September 15 by diving into Saturn’s upper atmosphere, where it will burn up like a meteor.

The unmanned spacecraft’s “grand finale” caps off an 8-billion-kilometer mission that included a series of orbits into the unexplored space between Saturn and its rings.

The craft will use its last drops of fuel in its final maneuvers, fighting to keep its antenna pointed at a satellite dish in Australia. The craft will send data in near real time as it rushes headlong into Saturn’s atmosphere, NASA scientist Linda Spilker said.  

Scientists planned to burn up the ship completely to destroy any microbes that might have hitched a ride from Earth.

The Cassini mission — a project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency — testifies to even broader cooperation, as 27 countries helped make it a success.

Cassini was launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, 20 years ago, in 1997. Here is a list of accomplishments from the mission:

  • Observing the complexity of Saturn’s rings. Scientists have determined that Saturn’s most beautiful feature, its system of rings, was created by multiple processes.
  • Discovering six new moons. One newly discovered moon looks like a sponge, and another is shaped like the “Death Star” in Star Wars movies.
  • Landing on the first moon in the outer solar system. The European Space Agency’s Huygens probe landed on Saturn’s moon Titan, where it found rivers and canyons carved by liquid methane.
  • Finding jets of water shooting from Enceladus. This discovery likely signifies an ocean beneath the tiny moon’s crust of ice.

“Cassini has changed the paradigm of where we might look for life,” Spilker said. No one thought that a moon orbiting a planet might be a great candidate for living things. But thanks to Cassini, she plans a return mission to Enceladus to make a detailed search for signs of life.

Saturn's moon Enceladus (NASA)
Cassini spotted Saturn’s moon Enceladus as it shot jets of ice and water vapor — signs of a subsurface ocean. (NASA)

“The end of Cassini’s mission will be a poignant moment,” said Earl Maize, of NASA. But one thing is for sure: It will continue to spark scientific discovery for many years to come.

You can follow NASA’s coverage of Cassini’s grand finale online.