Video shows NASA's Cassini team reacting to the spacecraft's death at Saturn

The Latest NASA's Cassini spacecraft burns up over Saturn

In a JPL auditorium minutes after the end, science planner Jo Pitesky gazed up at the video from mission control with a slightly stricken look on her face. After 13 years of exploring Saturn and its moons, the spacecraft will deliberately plunge at over 75,000 miles per hour into the planet and ultimately be destroyed by the weight and temperature of the atmosphere. (NASA / JPL / ASI / University of Arizona / University of Leicester) One of the last pictures sent back by NASA's Cassini orbiter shows Titan, a smog-covered moon of Saturn, with its hydrocarbon lakes visible toward the top of the image. It still had enough left to power its boosters for another few years but NASA mission engineers didn't want to take the risk of an uncontrolled landing on Titan or Enceladus.

"This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft and you're all an incredible team", Maize said. Dutiful to the end, the spacecraft then sampled Saturn's atmosphere on Friday morning as it made its final plunge.

The density of the atmosphere caused the spacecraft to tumble and sever its radio link. It's spent the past 13 years studying the planet, its rings, and moons in unprecedented detail. Leaving it to drift around Saturn, like two old friends chilling together unto eternity, was no longer an option because Cassini could contaminate the life on Enceladus if it accidentally crashed there. The spacecraft sent back remarkable images and copious data from each object, finally reaching the Saturn system in 2004.

First, Cassini had to get to Saturn. Within about 30 seconds following loss of signal, the spacecraft will begin to come apart; within a couple of minutes, all remnants of the spacecraft are expected to be completely consumed in the atmosphere of Saturn. On the evening of 14 September, the Cassini spacecraft sent back its final images of the Saturn system. Scientists still need to decode the last bits of data the vehicle gathered during its plunge, as well as all of the information the probe has received during its journey at Saturn.

After a last flyby of the Saturn's moon Titan, the spacecraft dived between Saturn's uppermost atmosphere and its innermost ring 22 times. "Who knows how many PhD theses are in that data?"

Just minutes after entering the atmosphere, Cassini vaporized. The spacecraft was built and finally launched on October 15, 1997. While its radioisotope thermoelectric generator is still going strong, generating 633 watts, plenty for Cassini's science and communications equipment, like the propellant tank, which fuels maneuvering engines, is down to less than 1 percent of its life.

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The room burst into applause.

"We just heard the signal from the spacecraft is gone, and within the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft", announced Earl Maize, Cassini's project manager. The Washington Post reports her voice cracked with emotion while saying Cassini was a "perfect spacecraft", which did exactly what it was supposed to do.

NASA said earlier this year that Enceladus, has "all the ingredients needed to support life".

"It has been a tremendous mission to be a part of", he said. They're not so much about science as exploration.

Here are some of the other incredible shots Cassini has taken over the years, with colors enhanced courtesy NASA.

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