NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is set to smash into Saturn after nearly two decades, but the images it captured will live on for years to come.
There will be quite a few emotional NASA and European Space Agency (ESA) employees this week as they count down the hours until the Cassini spacecraft collides with Saturn, bringing its decades-long mission to a close.
Launched in October 1997, the spacecraft remains one of the most ambitious space missions ever, exploring Saturn in unprecedented detail as well as landing the probe Huygens on Saturn’s moon, Titan.
It took seven years for the spacecraft to reach the outer region of our solar system and enter Saturn’s orbit, but not before it made some flybys past Earth, Venus and Jupiter.
Among its original objectives were to create a detailed 3D image of Saturn’s rings to understand their structure and behaviour, as well as the planet’s magnetosphere and nature of its moons, including Phoebe and Enceladus.
While Cassini’s instruments got into action once it reached Saturn’s atmosphere in 2004, much of the early excitement was felt for its partner probe, Huygens, which descended to Titan in early 2005.
Even today, after the scientific achievement that was Rosetta’s Philae lander touching down on a comet for the first time, Huygens remains the only probe to successfully land on another body in the outer reaches of our solar system.
While it transmitted data for just 90 minutes, Huygens showed that Titan had a hazy, thick atmosphere. It resembled the Earth in many ways, with evidence that a liquid – possibly methane – had flowed on the surface, causing erosion.
A fitting end
After Cassini completed its initial mission in 2008, NASA gave the go-ahead to extend it for a further two years, doing so again in 2010 as part of the Cassini Solstice Mission.
In 2016, realising the limited lifespan of its fuel supply, NASA decided that it should be given a grand finale of a mission to climb high above Saturn’s poles, before diving between the planet’s uppermost atmosphere and its innermost ring 22 times.
But now, the craft is set to go out in a blaze of glory after nearly 20 years of unbridled success, by crashing into Saturn’s surface, scattering the inanimate object’s remains across the planet it has gotten to know in intimate detail.
Here are just 10 images it has taken over the years that have left many breathless.