BALTIMORE (WJZ) — It was a fiery farewell a long way from home.
For 13 years the Cassini spacecraft has been studying Saturn and its moons.
Alex DeMetrick reports, it all ended today, when it plunged into the ringed planet’s atmosphere.
Cassini left Earth 20 years ago, and started giving us our first up close looks at Saturn several years later.
“It goes beyond words,” says Dr. Robert Garvin, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. “This is one of those missions of discovery that will be in the history books.”
Saturn may have been the destination for the craft, but the payoff were discoveries made on two of the planet’s moons.
A European probe was launched from Cassini to the surface of Titan, where mountains of ice and seas and rivers of liquid methane were found.
And on the small frozen moon Enceladus, geysers of salt water shot into space from an ocean buried beneath the ice.
“We’re now seeing worlds that could be life bearing worlds that we never knew about before Cassini,” says Garvin.
Its final exploration was made in dives between Saturn and its rings, on its way to its own destruction.
Running short of fuel, Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, its antenna struggling to point toward Earth, sending back chemical data.
The plan was to burn the craft up, rather than chance it crashing into one of the moons.
“We may have fragile, otherworldly environments for life, in ways we don’t understand, so contaminating with what we bring on Cassini, or any mission, would be unwise,” Garvin says. “What an end game for Cassini.”
Cassini was lost in Saturn’s skies at about 7:30 a.m. EST. Data from its final signals will likely take weeks to analyze.
According to the Associated Press, Cassini collected more than 453,000 images and traveled 4.9 billion miles. Twenty seven nations took part in the mission, which had a final price tag of about $3.9 billion.