Dramatic final moments for spacecraft Cassini

Cassini's Grand Finale Livestream: Watch Spacecraft Plunge Itself Into Saturn Skies Online

Today on September 15, around 6:30 PM IST, Cassini will enter Saturn's atmosphere, with its high-gain antenna pointed towards Earth in a bid to relay one last time the final observations before burning up and ending over 13 years of observation of the most lovely planet in the solar system.

Following its final maneuvering orders from NASA mission control that sent it on a high-speed ring-around of Saturn, the Cassini Huygens probe was put on the end stretch of its flight plan - and mission life - by NASA early this week.

A final close flyby of the moon Titan on April 22 used the moon's gravity to reshape Cassini's trajectory so that the spacecraft leapt over the planet's icy rings to pass between the rings and Saturn.

The data took 84 minutes to reach NASA antennas in Canberra, Australia, Maize said. Over the mission, the northern hemisphere shifted from a bluish hue to the more familiar golden tones as the shadows cast by Saturn's rings moved south. Although Cassini's main power is supplied by radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs - essentially nuclear batteries that were still going at mission's end - the fuel supply for the probe's main engine and backup was believed to be running low. The bus-sized spacecraft is almost out of fuel, and destroying it will prevent it from becoming space debris, "to ensure Saturn's moons remain pristine for future exploration", according to a Cal Poly statement.

Unfortunately, even though Cassini is apparently the Mary Sue of spacecraft, it was never quite able to pin down the rate at which Saturn's guts rotate under its thoroughly noxious pea-soup atmosphere.

NASA has let one of its most valuable space exploration missions go up in smoke.

Cassini wasn't the first NASA probe to study Saturn close-up. One of the most ambitious and successful space missions ever undertaken by Nasa, the spacecraft will also be long remembered for the attractive images it generated as it embarked on a two-billion mile journey with "fly-bys" of Venus, Jupiter and even the Earth.

Cassini's Grand Finale Livestream: Watch Spacecraft Plunge Itself Into Saturn Skies Online

As it was with the probe's previous Grand Finale flybys, seven of Cassini's instruments, including its ion and neutral mass spectrometer, were activated during its final trip into Saturn's clouds.

Cassini's magnetometer has already made some unexpected discoveries. The Huygens lander separated from Cassini and plopped down on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan shortly after the arrival. On Titan, bright and feathery methane clouds float in the sky and dump rain on the surface, at times producing terrific floods. That way, Cassini could collect detailed data about the atmosphere and then send it back to researchers as quickly as possible. NASA predicted it would receive the final signal at 7:55AM ET, and wound up getting it about half a minute later than expected.

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

The Cassini spacecraft was a scientific powerhouse. The presence of ample hydrogen in the ocean means that microbes, if any exist there, could use it to obtain energy. This instrument measures the chemical composition of gases, and provided scientists with their first direct taste of Saturn's atmosphere.

Looking forward, NASA still has a ton of data (scientifically speaking) to sift through, including the spacecraft's closest sniff of Saturn's atmosphere as it melted the orbiter into nothing.

Ralph Lorenz, one of the world's leading experts on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has worked on Cassini for his entire 27-year career.

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