Before its destruction, the bus-sized Cassini spacecraft fought Saturn’s buffeting atmosphere to send back scientific data for even longer than NASA thought it would.
But the end was inevitable: Twenty years after its launch, and 13 years after its arrival at the ringed planet, the final signals from Cassini were received at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., at 4:55:46 a.m. PT today.
“I’m going to call this the end of mission,” Cassini project manager Earl Maize declared, during an early-morning webcast that was watched by tens of thousands. “Project manager, off the net.”
The end was pre-ordained days earlier, when a final maneuver put the spacecraft on a course to dive into Saturn’s upper atmosphere. NASA meticulously planned out the controlled descent to make sure there was no chance that Cassini could crash into one of Saturn’s moons, which are certain to be targets for future missions.