The Cassini space­craft sent its fi­nal string of data back to Earth early Fri­day morn­ing, shortly be­fore va­por­iz­ing in Saturn’s at­mos­phere, thereby ending a 20-year jour­ney that is con­sid­ered by many sci­en­tists to be one of the most suc­cess­ful mis­sions in

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The craft was launched in 1997 with a Ti­tan 4B rocket car­ry­ing the orbiter and its at­tached Huy­gens probe. De­vel­oped by NASA, the Euro­pean Space Agency and the Ital­ian Space Agency, Cassini ar­rived in Saturn’s or­bit in June 2004 af­ter a 3.5-bil­lion kilo­me­tre jour­ney. For 13 years, Cassini and Huy­gens sent back re­mark­able images and data about newly dis­cov­ered moons, gey­sers of wa­ter shoot­ing into space, and lakes of hy­dro­car­bons.

One of the last pieces of data cap­tured by Cassini was an in­frared im­age of the place into which it took its fi­nal plunge. The im­age, taken 15 hours be­fore the space­craft’s demise, re­veals a spot on Saturn’s dark side just north of the planet’s equa­tor where the space­craft dis­in­te­grated shortly af­ter los­ing con­tact with Earth.


Once the space­craft ran out of fuel, NASA would not risk let­ting it re­main aloft, where it might be knocked into its moons. In April, Cassini be­gan 22 close-in or­bits that took it be­tween and be­hind Saturn’s rings. Ear­lier this week, NASA flew Cassini past Ti­tan one last time, tak­ing ad­van­tage of the moon’s grav­i­ta­tional pull to sling­shot the space­craft to­ward Saturn.

Just af­ter 3:30 a.m. Cal­i­for­nia time on Fri­day, Cassini en­tered Saturn’s at­mos­phere, plum­met­ing at about 124,000 km-h be­fore va­por­iz­ing.

Dur­ing its last mo­ments, the space­craft’s in­stru­ments sam­pled the mol­e­cules in the planet’s at­mos­phere — in­for­ma­tion that sci­en­tists will use to un­der­stand the planet’s for­ma­tion and com­po­si­tion.


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