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Video shows NASA's Cassini team reacting to the spacecraft's death at Saturn

Video shows NASA's Cassini team reacting to the spacecraft's death at Saturn”

NASA's Cassini spacecraft made its dramatic "death plunge" into Saturn's atmosphere Friday, ending an epic 20-year space journey.

"These final images are sort of like taking a last look around your house or apartment just before you move out", said Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"Congratulations to you all", Maize announced to applause.

The last image captured by Cassini. But rather than careen into a canyon, the plucky probe took a final plunge into the object of its obsession. "I'm going to call this the end of mission", said Maize, once the signal disappeared.

The ESA-built Huygens probe travelled with Cassini and was dropped in 2005 onto Titan, another of Saturn's moons. Nearly everything we know about Saturn today was either discovered or rediscovered by Cassini.

The Saturn System Through the Eyes of Cassini (e-Book)

The probe explored space for almost 20 years. However, it didn't actually make it to the planet until 2004.

The USD 3.9 billion mission continued to transmit data back to the Earth till the last minute before it came apart and was burned up like a meteor in Saturn's atmosphere.

The twin Voyagers swung by Saturn in the 1970s and '80s, giving scientists a rough outline of the planet and its moons.

Cassini showed us worlds beyond our own.

The Saturn moon Enceladus has a frozen surface covering a hidden global ocean of salt water and, possibly, some form of life. Any ocean would have to be 15 to 20 miles (24 to 31 km) below the surface of the 246-mile-across (396 km) moon, since the only heat source is the kneading of Mimas by tidal forces from Saturn, said Radwan Tajeddine, a Cassini research associate at Cornell University, and lead author on the paper, in a NASA press release. She called Cassini's revelations about this moon "one of the most astonishing discoveries for planetary science ... that has really changed our thinking about where to look for life".

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Though Cassini didn't have the right instruments to fully test the plumes, the discovery made Enceladus a prime target for future missions and provided compelling evidence for the possibility of life outside of the habitability zone where Earth sits.

Cassini's final image of Saturn. "That's risky. We had to wait until the end of the mission to take that risk".

But Cassini ran out of fuel.

"We don't have a gas gauge".

Cassini has sent back hundreds of images that gave scientists plenty of surprises.

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The safe disposal of Cassini was viewed as the best way of avoiding the remote possibility of contaminating the pristine moons with Earth bugs.

After all this mission, there's a single conclusion we can draw: we have to come back. Seventeenth-century astronomers supplied the spacecraft names: Italy's Giovanni Domenico Cassini, who discovered four moons and the wide division in Saturn's rings, and Holland's Christiaan Huygens, who spotted the first and biggest moon, Titan. We know each other's families, children, and grandchildren.

Before contact was lost, eight of Cassini's 12 scientific instruments were operating during the final plunge.

Dougherty is hoping that as Cassini spiraled into the atmosphere, the onboard magnetometer detected a telltale tilt in the magnetic field that should resolve the uncertainty over the length of a Saturnian day, Joe reports.

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