NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, the robotic explorer of Saturn and its ocean moons, died shortly after 4:55 a.m. Friday, after burning up in the ringed gas giant’s atmosphere.
Cassini was exactly a month away from its 20th year in space.
The spacecraft technically perished 86 minutes earlier, but the transmissions needed to travel millions of miles to reach Earth.
“We just heard the signal from the spacecraft is gone, and within the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft,” announced Earl Maize, Cassini’s project manager, over mission control’s radio shortly before 5 a.m. “Congratulations to you all. This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft and an incredible team.”
• Photos: A final goodbye
Cassini was estimated to last about 1 1/2 minutes in Saturn’s atmosphere before high temperatures ripped it apart and melted components. In reality, the loss of signal came 30 seconds later than predicted through a mix of delays and strong engineering, Maize said.
NASA planned Cassini’s destruction nearly seven years ago and used a gravity assist during a flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan on Monday to send the spacecraft barreling to its conclusion.
In its final moments, Cassini used its remaining fuel to keep its antenna pointed toward Earth for as long as possible. The 76,000 mile-per-hour death dive allowed scientists to use all eight of Cassini’s scientific instruments within Saturn’s atmosphere, to study the atmospheric composition, the planet’s rotation and more.
“We believe we got every last second of data,” Maize said. “It’s already back in Arizona, and I think the…
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