NASA's Cassini spacecraft at Saturn nears fiery finale

NASA's Cassini spacecraft at Saturn nears fiery finale”

NASA's Cassini spacecraft today ended its 20-year-long epic journey with a fiery plunge into the Saturn's crushing atmosphere, while beaming back never- before-seen images of the ringed planet and its moons.

"This is the final chapter of an awesome mission, but it's also a new beginning", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

"As well as Mars, outer planet moons like Enceladus, Europa and even Titan are now top contenders for life elsewhere", he added.

"Our spacecraft has entered Saturn's atmosphere, and we have received its final transmission", NASA said in a tweet. Cassini's final signal took 83 minutes to reach planet Earth and the Deep Space Network antenna complex in Canberra Australia where loss of contact with the spacecraft was recorded at 11:55 UT.

Cassini snapped its "last memento photos" of the Saturn system Thursday.

The spacecraft's fateful dive was the final beat in the United States dollars 4 billion mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings.

"The Cassini operations team did an absolutely stellar job guiding the spacecraft to its noble end", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. What a way to go.

Eight of the spacecraft 12 scientific instruments were on, capturing data, in Cassini's last moments, before it disintegrates like a meteor, she said.

Cassini launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida and arrived at Saturn in 2004. The second mission extension provided dozens of flybys of the planet's icy moons, using the spacecraft's remaining rocket propellant along the way.

Its well-planned demise was a way to prevent any damage to Saturn's ocean-bearing moons Titan and Enceladus, which scientists want to keep pristine for future exploration because they may contain some form of life.

Cassini had been investigating Saturn and its moons since 2004 as part of a £2.5bn project which has unearthed a treasure trove of discoveries.

"For 13 years we have been running a marathon of scientific discovery, and we are on the last lap", she said early Friday. "We've only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime".

One of the most successful space mission's, Cassini, has come to spectacular end. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

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