NASA’s 13-year exploratory tour of Saturn has come to an end with the demise of the Cassini spacecraft. The long-serving machine officially brought the mission to a close in spectacular style, diving into the hazy, mysterious atmosphere of the planet it so diligently observed.
According to NASA, the plunge allowed for one last set of observations, giving scientists a once-in-a-lifetime glimpse into the alien world.
"This is the final chapter of an amazing mission, but it’s also a new beginning," laments NASA administrator Thomas Zurbuchen. "Cassini’s discovery of ocean worlds at Titan and Enceladus changed everything, shaking our views to the core about surprising places to search for potential life beyond Earth."
The mission launched back in 1997, before Cassini finally arrived at the ringed planet in 2004. Since then, it has transmitted incredible information back to NASA, furthering our understanding of Saturn and its remarkable moons.
"Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years,” adds Linda Spilker, a scientist on the project. “We've only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime."
Interestingly, the project was extended on two occasions – first for two years, and then for another seven. It’s last hoorah was dubbed the "Grand Finale", and saw the craft conduct an unprecedented series of 22 weekly dives between Saturn and its famous rings.
"Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying," says Spilker. "But, we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too."
Watch the mission's final moments below: