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Cassini begins sending in its final photos of Saturn

Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing one last look at Saturn, its vast expanse of rings, and its mysterious moons before the spacecraft plunges into the planet’s atmosphere.

The spacecraft is now just hours away from its planned demise, after 13 years of groundbreaking discoveries at the ringed planet. 

At around 7:54 a.m. (EST) Friday, Cassini will dive into Saturn’s atmosphere travelling at a speed of roughly 70,000 miles per hour, before sending out a final signal that will radiate across the solar system ‘like an echo.’

By the time this transmission reaches Earth, Cassini itself will be gone.

If all is according to schedule, the spacecraft captured its final image of the mission at 12:58 p.m. today, revealing the location at which it will make its fateful entry.

 

Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing a last look at Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft plunges into the planet’s atmosphere. This image was captured on September 13

The space agency has begun releasing the raw, unprocessed images as Cassini prepares for its ‘death dive.’ 

According to NASA, Cassini used its visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) to observe the impact site, which was, at the time, on Saturn’s night side.

Then, it was lit only by light reflected from the planet’s massive rings.

Cassini also employed its imaging cameras for supporting observations.

The spacecraft began its final approach to Saturn on Wednesday, after mission navigators confirmed it was on course for its entry into the planet’s atmosphere.

At around 7:54 a.m. (EST) Friday, Cassini will dive into Saturn¿s atmosphere travelling at a speed of roughly 70,000 miles per hour, before sending out a final signal that will radiate across the solar system ¿like an echo.¿ The image above is one of its last ever, taken on September 13

At around 7:54 a.m. (EST) Friday, Cassini will dive into Saturn’s atmosphere travelling at a speed of roughly 70,000 miles per hour, before sending out a final signal that will radiate across the solar system ‘like an echo.’ The image above is one of its last ever, taken on September 13

According to NASA, Cassini used its visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) to observe the impact site, which was, at the time, on Saturn¿s night side. Then, it was lit only by light reflected from the planet¿s massive rings. This image shows a last look at the icy moon Enceladus, thought to contain the ingredients to support microbial life

According to NASA, Cassini used its visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) to observe the impact site, which was, at the time, on Saturn’s night side. Then, it was lit only by light reflected from the planet’s massive rings. This image shows a last look at the icy moon Enceladus, thought to contain the ingredients to support microbial life

If all is according to schedule, the spacecraft captured its final image of the mission at 12:58 p.m. today, revealing the location at which it will make its fateful entry

If all is according to schedule, the spacecraft captured its final image of the mission at 12:58 p.m. today, revealing the location at which it will make its fateful entry

Over the course of Cassini’s Grand Finale mission, it’s come closer to Saturn than any spacecraft has before.

Just a minute after it breaks through Saturn’s atmosphere, NASA expects to lose contact with the spacecraft forever.

Cassini will have to fire its altitude control thrusters in short bursts to keep its antenna pointed at Earth.

Then as the atmosphere thickens, the thrusters will ramp up from 10 percent to 100 in just a minute.

‘Once they are firing at full capacity, the thrusters can do no more to keep Cassini stably pointed, and the spacecraft will begin to tumble,’ according to NASA.

The spacecraft is now just hours away from its planned demise, after 13 years of groundbreaking discoveries at the ringed planet

TIMELINE FOR THE DEATH OF CASSINI

September 12, 9:19 pm ET., Earth starts receiving Cassini’s last data on Titan.

September 14, 3:58 pm ET., Cassini’s cameras take their last pictures.

September 14, 4:22 pm ET., Cassini’s last batch of data—including those last pictures—begin streaming back to Earth.

NASA plans to post raw images online as they are received. Earth will start receiving those signals at 5:45 pm ET.

At 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT) on Friday, it will lose contact with mission operators following its entry into Saturn's harsh atmosphere. The graphic above shows the relative altitudes of Cassini's final five passes through Saturn's upper atmosphere, compared to the depth it reaches upon loss of communication with Earth

At 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT) on Friday, it will lose contact with mission operators following its entry into Saturn’s harsh atmosphere. The graphic above shows the relative altitudes of Cassini’s final five passes through Saturn’s upper atmosphere, compared to the depth it reaches upon loss of communication with Earth

September 15, 3:14 am ET., The spacecraft rolls into position to collect atmospheric data during the descent.

September 15, 6:31 am ET., Cassini enters Saturn’s atmosphere.

September 15, 6:32 am ET., Cassini’s antenna points away from Earth, leading to a loss of signal. Shortly afterwards, the spacecraft is vaporized.

September 15, 7:00 am-8:30 am ET, NASA livestreams the scene at mission control at NASA JPL, with live commentary about the end of the mission.

September 15, 7:55 am ET., Earth registers the loss of signal, indicating the end of Cassini. 

NASA's Cassini probe is counting its final hours before one last plunge into Saturn on Friday that will cap a fruitful 13-year mission that greatly expanded knowledge about the gas giant. The spacecraft is on its last approach to the gas giant planet after mission navigators confirmed today that it's on course for its 'death dive'

NASA’s Cassini probe is counting its final hours before one last plunge into Saturn on Friday that will cap a fruitful 13-year mission that greatly expanded knowledge about the gas giant. The spacecraft is on its last approach to the gas giant planet after mission navigators confirmed today that it’s on course for its ‘death dive’

Then, it won’t take much for the connection to be lost – once the antenna points just a few fractions of a degree away from Earth, NASA says communication will be ‘severed permanently.’

‘The spacecraft’s final signal will be like an echo,’ said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

‘It will radiate across the solar system for nearly an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone.

‘Even though we’ll know that, at Saturn, Cassini has already met its fate, its mission isn’t truly over for us on Earth as long as we’re still receiving its signal.’

The space agency has begun releasing the raw, unprocessed images as Cassini prepares for its 'death dive.' The images taken yesterday and today have finally started to arrive to Earth

The space agency has begun releasing the raw, unprocessed images as Cassini prepares for its ‘death dive.’ The images taken yesterday and today have finally started to arrive to Earth

The spacecraft began its final approach to Saturn on Wednesday, after mission navigators confirmed it was on course for its entry into the planet's atmosphere. This image shows one of its last looks at the moon Titan, captured on Sept 13

The spacecraft began its final approach to Saturn on Wednesday, after mission navigators confirmed it was on course for its entry into the planet’s atmosphere. This image shows one of its last looks at the moon Titan, captured on Sept 13

Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing a last look at Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft plunges into the planet's atmosphere. This photo was captured on Sept 13

Cassini has begun transmitting the final images of its mission, revealing a last look at Saturn and its rings before the spacecraft plunges into the planet’s atmosphere. This photo was captured on Sept 13

SATURN’S RINGS 

Saturn’s rings consist of countless small particles, ranging in size from micrometres to metres, that orbit the planet.

The ring particles are made almost entirely of water ice, with a trace component of rocky material. 

They also contain features known as straw and propellers, which are caused by ‘clumping ring particles and small, embedded moonlets, respectively.’

In 13 years studying Saturn, Cassini has made countless groundbreaking observations.

And, its final plunge is expected to bring unprecedented insight on the ringed planet.

The spacecraft will keep its instruments firing until the last second, using eight out of its 12 space instruments to study Saturn’s atmosphere up close.

As it plummets toward the surface, the mission will collect data with all of its magnetosphere and plasma science instruments, the spacecraft’s radio science system, and its infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers.

The ‘death dive’ will allow Cassini to directly sample the composition and structure of Saturn’s atmosphere for the first time, using its Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer.

During one of its Grand Finale dives earlier this summer, it began work ‘sniffing out’ the planet’s exosphere – or, the outermost atmosphere.

In 13 years studying Saturn, Cassini has made countless groundbreaking observations. Here, it looks at Saturn's rings one last time before diving into the atmosphere

In 13 years studying Saturn, Cassini has made countless groundbreaking observations. Here, it looks at Saturn’s rings one last time before diving into the atmosphere

Cassini flew by Titan one last time on Tuesday before transmitting images and scientific data from the flight. This unprocessed image of Titan was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during the mission's final, distant flyby on Sept. 11, 2017

Cassini flew by Titan one last time on Tuesday before transmitting images and scientific data from the flight. This unprocessed image of Titan was taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during the mission’s final, distant flyby on Sept. 11, 2017

SATURN’S MOON ENCELADUS THOUGHT TO CONTAIN THE ‘CHEMICAL ENERGY FOR LIFE’

During its deepest-ever dive into a plume from cracks in Enceladus’ ice-covered ocean, the Cassini spacecraft detected the presence of hydrogen gas.

According to researchers, the only plausible source of this gas could be hydrothermal reactions between hot rocks and water in the ocean beneath the icy surface.

This same process, on Earth, provides energy for entire ecosystems around hydrothermal vents.

As a result, the researcher say there could be volatile species in these deep oceans. 

It means Enceladus may have the same single-celled organisms which began life on Earth, or more complex life still.

While they haven’t found life itself on Enceladus, the researchers say the geochemical data ‘could allow for this possibility.’

According to NASA, the spacecraft will be oriented so the instrument is pointed in the direction of motion, to allow it the best possible access to oncoming atmospheric gases.

‘The Cassini mission has been packed full of scientific firsts, and our unique planetary revelations will continue to the very end of the mission as Cassini becomes Saturn’s first planetary probe, sampling Saturn’s atmosphere up until the last second,’ said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

‘We’ll be sending data in near real time as we rush headlong into the atmosphere — it’s truly a first-of-its-kind event at Saturn.’ 

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