NASA’s Cassini Probe Sends a Final Shot of Saturn Before Plunging to its Fiery Demise

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An illustration of Cassini in its final moments. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Twenty years after it left earth and 13 years after it began orbiting Saturn, the space probe Cassini sent its final communication to NASA early Friday morning before disintegrating in the ringed-planet’s atmosphere less than a minute later.

The mood was somber at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, as Cassini transmitted data about the upper reaches of Saturn’s atmosphere. With the probe running out of gas, NASA decided to plunge it closer to the surface of the planet than it’s ever been. It would destroy the probe, but it would also provide prized new data about Saturn’s atmosphere.

“Who knows how many PhD theses might be in just those final seconds of data?” Cassini project scientist  Linda Spilker said Friday.

Over the years, Cassini has made many discoveries about Saturn, identifying news moons and revealing hidden secrets about the planet’s ring, among other things. But for those who have hard time getting excited about methane lakes on the moon Titan, Cassini’s greatest contribution has been the incredible photographs it’s taken during its more than decade in space.

The final shot from the probe provides a hazy view of the night side of the planet, before Cassini entered the atmosphere.

Here are some of the other incredible shots Cassini has taken over the years, with colors enhanced courtesy NASA.

A shot of Saturn taken while in the planet’s shadow. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Saturn’s north polar storm. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Storms at Saturn’s north pole. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
This image spans 404,880 miles across. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Saturn’s moons Titan and Rhea. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
NASA’s Cassini Sends a Final Shot of Saturn