On Friday, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, marking the end of a historic mission.
For over 13 years, Cassini orbited Saturn taking over 300,000 photos, sending back 635 GB of scientific data and traveling billions of miles.
Cassini has exceeded its intended mission by years but is running dangerously low on fuel. To prevent the spacecraft from accidentally crash landing on one of Saturn’s moons, potentially contaminating it with microbes from Earth hitching a ride aboard the spacecraft, NASA decided to end the mission by having it burn up while entering the planet’s atmosphere.
Cassini was not alone on its journey across the solar system as the Huygens probe went along for the ride. This probe explored Saturn’s moon Titan, which is larger than Mercury and is the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere.
Although Cassini will burn up in Saturn’s atmosphere, its scientific findings will live on, providing scientists with a wealth of data that will help to pave the way for future missions.
1. Cassini’s launch
On Oct. 15, 1997, Cassini lifted off from Cape Canaveral, Fla., and began its seven-year journey to Saturn. The early morning launch lit up the sky and was the first leg of its 2.2 billion-mile journey to Saturn. (Photo/NASA)
2. Saturn before arrival
Cassini arrived at Saturn on July 1, 2004, burning its main engine to slow down and be captured by Saturn’s gravity. However, the spacecraft began photographing the planet before this, including the photo above which was taken on May 7, 2004. (Photo/NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)
3. In the shadow of Saturn
On several occasions in Cassini’s 294 orbits around Saturn, the ringed gas giant eclipsed the sun giving the spacecraft the perfect opportunity to photograph the planet from a unique angle. “This marvelous panoramic view was created by combining a total of 165 images taken by the Cassini wide-angle camera over nearly three hours on Sept. 15, 2006,” NASA said. (NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)
4. Storm erupts on Saturn
In 2011, Cassini photographed a massive storm that erupted on Saturn, which lasted for several months. “This storm is the largest, most intense storm observed on Saturn by NASA’s Voyager or Cassini spacecraft,” NASA said. (Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
5. Saturn’s famous rings
Cassini took thousands of photos of Saturn’s dazzling rings and, in its final orbits, flew between the small gap between the planet and its rings. During its mission, it discovered new rings that were previously too faint to detect. (Photo/NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)
6. Many moons of Saturn
Before Cassini arrived at Saturn, scientists information about its many moons was limited. The long duration of the mission allowed Cassini to study the moons in greater detail, such as Tethys which has a surface comprised of ice. (Photo/NASA/JPL)
7. First photos from Titan
The Huygens probe, built and operated by the European Space Agency, traveled to Saturn with Cassini and was sent to explore Titan. By landing on Titan, Huygens became the only manmade object to land on a body in the outer solar system. (Photo/ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
8. The icy moon Enceladus
Enceladus is one of Saturn’s more fascinating moons, covered in a thick layer of ice. Cassini helped to compile evidence of liquid water under the ice, opening the possibility for life to exist. (Photo/NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)
9. Enceladus’ plumes of water
Within a year of arriving at Saturn, Cassini captured images of plumes of water vapor jetting out from near the moon’s south pole. The spacecraft photographed this occurrence on many occasions and, near the end of its mission, flew through the plumes to help collect data on their chemical composition. (Photo/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
10. The aurora glows above Saturn
The aurora is a natural phenomenon that occurs on many planets across the solar system, including Saturn. Cassini captured several images showing the green glow of the aurora over Saturn’s south pole in 2007. (Photo/NASA/JPL/ASI/University of Arizona/University of Leicester)
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