Pioneering spacecraft ends Saturn mission with dramatic dive
Cassini killed off in a ‘blaze of glory’ after probe’s 13 years of exploration
A pioneering spacecraft that has transformed our knowledge of Saturn and its moons has ended its mission with a spectacular suicide dive into the ringed planet’s atmosphere.
American space agency Nasa carried out the destruction of Cassini to bring to a close what it called “a thrilling epoch” in space exploration.
For 13 years the 22ft nuclear-powered probe had been gathering a treasure trove of images and data from the Saturnian system.
At 12.55pm UK time, all communication with the craft was lost as Cassini fell to its doom 930 miles above Saturn’s cloud tops. It took less than a minute to disintegrate into fragments and burn up.
Mission controllers at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, clapped and hugged each other when the end of radio contact was confirmed.
Scientists talked of a “bitter sweet” mixture of emotions, both sadness at Cassini’s loss and intense pride in what they had achieved.
Cassini project manager Dr Earl Maize, who directed Cassini’s final moments from the JPL control room, said: “The Cassini operations team did an absolutely stellar job guiding the spacecraft to its noble end.
“What a way to go. Truly a blaze of glory.”
Project scientist Dr Linda Spilker said: “Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying.
“But we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”
The decision to kill off Cassini was taken because the craft would soon run out of fuel and become impossible to steer.
Scientists feared a collision with Titan or Enceladus, two of Saturn’s moons that in the past 10 years have shown a potential to host simple life.
Project manager at JPL, Dr Earl Maize, and operations team manager for the mission, Julie Webster, embraced after the spacecraft plunged into Saturn. Picture: PA.