A view of Enceladus as it set behind Saturn. But the agency didn't want to risk Cassini accidentally crashing into one of these moons and spreading around Earth microbes. To avoid a random collision with one of Saturn's moons or Saturn itself (which could have led to contamination of the soil by Earth bacteria), engineers chose to put Cassini in a terminal dive through Saturn's atmosphere, to ensure it burned completely.
The spacecraft tumbled out of control while plummeting at more than 122,000km/h.
Engineers who've spent much of their professional life guiding, maintaining and talking with Cassini gathered in JPL's campus-like Pasadena headquarters during the night for a kind of space wake.
Just how obsessed? Its 13-year mission to explore the odd world of Saturn went on almost a decade longer than planned.
Cassini's date with death had been planned for months. The spacecraft was built and finally launched on October 15, 1997. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute) This image of Saturn's rings was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on September 13, 2017.
Cassini-Huygens travelled to Saturn via a circuitous route, using the gravity assist technique to receive boosts in speed from the Earth, Venus, and Jupiter, and taking in an asteroid, Masursky, along the way.
Late previous year, the Cassini spacecraft executed a daring set of ring-grazing orbits. Being the only ever spacecraft to explore the orbit of Saturn, Cassini will be remembered for its great contribution.
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Here are some of the other incredible shots Cassini has taken over the years, with colors enhanced courtesy NASA.
"The spacecraft will be transmitting data until the very end, and we'll be there when it stops", McEwen says.
Cassini streamed back new details about Saturn's atmosphere right up until its blazing finale on Friday.
Throughout its odyssey, Cassini sent back a wealth of information for us Earthlings to pour over. 83 minutes post the explosion, did the news reach Earth.
Many grounds telescoped were invited to witness the glorious event though spotting the explosion from the distance of a billion miles was nearly impossible.
During multiple close flybys, Cassini used its full science payload to detect and analyze water-rich plumes erupting from the moon's south pole far into space, a spectacular discovery that McEwen considers one of the highlights of the entire mission. NASA predicted it would receive the final signal at 7:55AM ET, and wound up getting it about half a minute later than expected.
I told her that Cassini was there now, but not for long, that the probe would crash into Saturn and be gone.
During its fatal fall to Saturn, Cassini continued to send data back to scientists at NASA.
Cassini was the first probe to orbit Saturn.