After two decades in space, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is nearing the end of its remarkable journey of exploration. Having expended almost every bit of the rocket propellant it carried to Saturn, operators are deliberately plunging Cassini into the planet to ensure Saturn’s moons will remain pristine for future exploration—in particular, the ice-covered, ocean-bearing moon Enceladus, but also Titan, with its intriguing pre-biotic chemistry.

Above, The New York Times pays tribute to an accomplished explorer: Cassini Flies Toward a Fiery Death on Saturn.

Cassini was launched on Oct. 15, 1997, a collaborative effort between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. The spacecraft spent seven years traveling to Saturn. It delivered the Huygens lander to Titan, gathered scientific data from the planet, its famous rings, and its moons for 13 years, including getting a good look at Saturn’s incredible hexagon-shaped hurricane.

In its last months, NASA has sent Cassini on an unprecedented 22 dives in between Saturn’s rings and atmosphere to gather more data. It’s closer to Saturn than we’ve ever been, and that mission has ended:

​On the final orbit, Cassini will plunge into Saturn fighting to keep its antenna pointed at Earth as it transmits its farewell. In the skies of Saturn, the journey ends, as Cassini becomes part of the planet itself… The current predicted time for loss of signal on Earth is 4:55 a.m. PDT (7:55 a.m. EDT) on Sept. 15, 2017.

An update from its final moments:

In addition to collecting 635 gigabytes of science data and 453,048 images, we can thank Cassini for this specific July 19, 2013 shot: The Day the Earth Smiled. That Pale Blue Dot tucked under Saturn’s rings on the right is Earth. Click to see it larger:


Read more about Cassini’s accomplishments at Wikipedia—Timeline of Cassini–Huygens—and in case you missed it: Cassini’s Grand Finale, our daring last months orbiting Saturn.

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