Cassini's finale: NASA's last photos from their 20-year Saturn mission

Cassini's finale: NASA's last photos from their 20-year Saturn mission

Cassini actually burned up like a meteor 83 minutes earlier, as it dove through Saturn's atmosphere, becoming one with the planet it set out in 1997 to explore.

Thirteen years after reaching Saturn, NASA's nuclear-powered Cassini spacecraft raced through its 294th and final orbit Thursday, collecting priceless data while hurtling toward a kamikaze-like plunge into the ringed planet's atmosphere Friday, going out in a blaze of glory to wrap up an "insanely" successful mission.

It all went more or less like NASA had intended. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute) As it glanced around the Saturn system one final time, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured this view of the planet's giant moon Titan. Cassini discovered two previously unknown moons orbiting Saturn (bringing Saturn's total known moon count to 60), discovered ice plumes from Enceladus (another Saturn moon) via magnetometer, and detached and sent the Huygens probe down to the surface of Titan (Saturn's largest moon).

The density of the atmosphere caused the spacecraft to tumble and sever its radio link.

When Cassini arrived at Saturn, where one "year" lasts 29.5 Earth years, the gas giant went through northern winter, and Cassini was there to witness the planet's change of seasons. She has worked on the Cassini mission for more than two decades and is among the few people at NASA who ventured inside the craft as it was being built. Scientists wanted to prevent Cassini from crashing into Enceladus or Titan - and contaminating those pristine worlds.

"Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years", Linda Spilker, a project scientist for Cassini at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said in a statement. The last message it sent signaled the end of its incredible 20-year-run in outer space.

And even faced with imminent death, Cassini persevered.

"We call loss of signal", said spacecraft operations manager Julie Webster at 4:55 a.m. local time. On the tiny white dot peering through the rings (pictured below), the entire mission team sat waiting to hear that their spacecraft successfully completed its mission-ending dive.

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Cassini has spent half a Saturn year in orbit watching the slow progression of the seasons.

Cassini wasn't the first NASA probe to study Saturn close-up.

This unprocessed image of the Saturn system was taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on September 13, 2017.

"The spacecraft will be transmitting data until the very end, and we'll be there when it stops", McEwen says.

In a fitting end to the tough spacecraft, which outlasted its projected mission lifespan by over nine years, Cassini kept sending science data back to Earth a full 30 seconds longer than expected. That way, Cassini could collect detailed data about the atmosphere and then send it back to researchers as quickly as possible. That's because of the distance between Saturn and Earth, which spans almost a billion miles.

During its journey, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries. The final signal was received by the Deep Space Network.

And Cassini became a part of the place it had studied for so long.

That last piece of information -which Cassini sent after sampling the molecules in the planet's atmosphere-will help scientists understand Saturn's composition and formation.