Saturn probe Cassini ends 20-year journey

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The Saturn probe Cassini has disintegrated in the planet’s atmosphere, bringing its 20-year mission to the ringed planet to an end.

Cassini had been investigating Saturn and its moons since 2004 as part of a £2.5bn project which has unearthed a treasure trove of discoveries.

At 12.56pm UK time, radio contact with the 22ft-long nuclear-powered probe was lost as it tumbled to its demise 930 miles above the cloud tops of the planet.

:: The legacy of doomed NASA spacecraft Cassini

An end to Cassini’s 20-year space mission

It disintegrated into fragments and burned up in seconds as it plummeted at 77,000mph.

Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, clapped and hugged one another when the loss of signal was confirmed.

Project manager Earl Maize said: “Congratulations to you all. This has been an incredible mission … you’re all an incredible team.”

The decision to end the mission was made because the probe would soon run out of fuel and become impossible to steer.

Scientists feared the craft would collide with Titan or Enceladus, two of Saturn’s moons, that have in the past 10 years shown a potential to host life.

Saturn's rings as captured by Cassini. Pic: NASA
Saturn’s rings as captured by Cassini. Pic: NASA

The safe disposal of Cassini was viewed as the best way of avoiding the remote possibility of contaminating the pristine moons with Earth bugs.

It took seven years to reach Saturn after launching from Cape Canaveral in Florida in 1997 and the original intention was for it to explore the planet and its moons for just three years.

The mission is regarded as one of the most ambitious and successful ever undertaken.

One of Cassini’s most important discoveries was the existence of a global watery ocean under the icy surface of Enceladus that could conceivably host life.

A European Space Agency probe carried by the orbiter, called Huygens, made worldwide headlines when it landed on Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons, in January 2005.

Cassini has revealed a wealth of information about the building blocks of life on Saturn's moon Enceladus
Cassini has revealed a wealth of information about the building blocks of life on Saturn’s moon Enceladus

The two probes showed Titan has a startlingly Earth-like landscape, with rivers, lakes and seas filled with liquid methane and ethane.

Cassini also discovered seven new moons, six of which have been named, observed raging storms on Saturn, and revealed more details of the planet’s famous rings.

Its fate was sealed on 11 September when it was sent on a final fly-by of Titan, which is 760,000 miles from Saturn.

Titan’s gravity nudged it onto a course back to Saturn, something the scientists involved in the mission nicknamed the “goodbye kiss”.

Cassini was still sending data back to Earth in near-real time right up until radio contact was lost.

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