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NASA sends Cassini probe into Saturn's atmosphere to save moons

NASA sends Cassini probe into Saturn's atmosphere to save moons

The Cassini space probe mission ended today when the probe made its final destructive plunge into Saturn. But there are proposals to go back, submitted under NASA's New Frontiers program.

Mission scientists were especially concerned about contaminating Titan or Enceladus, the two Saturnian moons where life as we know it might be possible-a possibility that Cassini's multiple flybys discovered.

Possel said that, for him, a highlight of the mission was the discovery of water on Saturn's moon Enceladus. But the agency didn't want to risk Cassini accidentally crashing into one of these moons and spreading around Earth microbes.

The end to the $4bn mission was partly created to rule out the possibility of Cassini contaminating the environment on Saturn's moons Enceladus and Titan, both of which feature some of the necessary conditions for life as we know it. Cassini also captured the closest images yet, of Saturn's rings, during its final sequence, in which it became the first ever man-made object to pass between Saturn's rings.

The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting at more than 122,000km/h. Even more gathered at nearby California Institute of Technology.

The readings are sure to include the atmospheric data from Cassini's final minutes.

Titan, a planet-sized moon Titan hiding dunes, mountains of water ice and rivers and seas of liquid methane, was also a factor in the plunge.

"That final flyby of Titan. put Cassini on an impacting trajectory and there is absolutely no coming out of it", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "You walk around the downstairs, as you go upstairs, you run your fingers along the banister, you look at your old room and memories across the years come flooding back".

A descriptive timeline of the Cassini orbiter, from launch to death. The spacecraft was built and finally launched on October 15, 1997. This last route took Cassini in the gap between Saturn and its rings, the closest the vehicle has ever come to the planet.

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During its 13-year mission, Cassini uncovered mysteries of the massive ringed planet. In April, Cassini began 22 close-in orbits that took it between and behind Saturn's rings.

On September 13 and 14, Cassini took a last look around the Saturn system's greatest hits, taking a color mosaic image of Saturn and the rings, a movie sequence of Enceladus setting behind Saturn, Titan and tiny moonlets in the rings that pull the icy ring particles around themselves to form features called propellers. The spacecraft emptied its onboard solid-state recorder of all science data, prior to reconfiguring for a near-real-time data relay during the final plunge, NASA said.

In the hours leading up to its fiery demise, Cassini also sent back a final batch of images, captured in the last days of its mission. It beamed back data until it couldn't anymore.

Cassini's atmospheric dive started around 6:31AM ET, but researchers didn't receive word of the vehicle's destruction until about 83 minutes later.

Many grounds telescoped were invited to witness the glorious event though spotting the explosion from the distance of a billion miles was nearly impossible.

MOONS: Saturn has 62 known moons, including six discovered by Cassini. We'll receive those signals sent at the speed of light, 52 minutes later.

Cassini is dead; long live Cassini.

Cassini is set to make groundbreaking scientific observations of Saturn, using eight of its twelve science instruments.

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