At around 7.55 am on Friday, 15 September NASA will watch its $4bn Cassini spacecraft crash into Saturn. Nasa also has little choice in the matter as Cassini has no fuel left and has overstayed its intended duration. For more than a decade, the spacecraft at Saturn took "a magnifying glass" to the enchanting planet, its moons, and rings.
Cassini revealed wet, exotic worlds that might harbor life: the moons Enceladus and Titan. It unveiled moonlets embedded in the rings. It also gave us front-row seats to Saturn's changing seasons and a storm so vast that it encircled the planet.
"We've had an incredible 13-year journey around Saturn, returning data like a giant fire hose, just flooding us with data," project scientist Linda Spilker said this week from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "Almost like we've taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings."
Cassini was expected to send back new details about Saturn's atmosphere right up until its blazing finale on Friday. Its delicate thrusters no match for the thickening atmosphere, the spacecraft was destined to tumble out of control during its rapid plunge and burn up like a meteor in Saturn's sky.
The end of the mission will be telecast live on NASA TV at around 7.55 am on Friday morning US Eastern Time. Catch it here.