RIP, Cassini: Historic Mission Ends with Fiery Plunge into Saturn

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PASADENA, Calif.— And just like that, it was gone. NASA received its last data transmission from the Cassini spacecraft at 4:55:46 a.m. PDT (7:55:46 a.m. EDT, 1146 GMT) today (Sept. 15), before losing contact with the probe as it hurtled into Saturn's atmosphere. It was a fiery grand finale for the probe, which spent 13 years orbiting the ringed planet. NASA officials expect that Cassini broke apart about 45 seconds after that final transmission, due to the intense friction and heat generated by the fall. "I hope you're all ... deeply proud of this amazing accomplishment," Earl Maize, the Cassini program manager, said to the mission team after the spacecraft signal was lost. "Congratulations to you all. This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're all an incredible team. I'm going to call this the end of mission." The Cassini spacecraft has plunged into Saturn, sending back its final communications before burning up in the ringed planet's atmosphere. The final stream of data from Cassini was received at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in southern California. The spacecraft communicated with Earth via the Deep Space Network, a series of telescopes around the world that keep contact with spacecraft that fly beyond the moon. The Deep Space Network is managed from JPL. During Cassini's final moments, mission scientists and team members watched anxiously as data continued to come in from the spacecraft as it hurtled through Saturn's atmosphere. The signal was lost when Cassini could no longer keep its antenna pointed at Earth, due to the intense friction created by its fall through the atmosphere. Maize said he anticipated that the probe would completely break apart about 45 seconds later. The team members stood and applauded somberly when Maize announced end of mission. "This is a historic moment, and I think the mood reflects that," Morgan Cable, a research scientist at JPL, said of the event. "This is a celebration of an amazing mission and incredible legacy."

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