NASA said in late July that its Cassini spacecraft has discovered there is no "discernible tilt". Ever dutiful to the end, it sampled Saturn's atmosphere Friday morning as it made its final, fateful plunge.
The final descent and atmospheric entry of the Cassini spacecraft brings to an end one of the most successful space missions in human history. After traveling for almost seven years, the spacecraft entered orbit around Saturn on July 1, 2004.
Some of the researchers on the Cassini project have been with the mission since it began, as it launched to space in 1997, when Bill Clinton was still president. While the probe entered the atmosphere at about 6:31 a.m. EDT (10:31 GMT), it took about 83 minutes for the data, traveling at the speed of light, to reach the Deep Space Network on Earth.
For a closer look at the Cassini mission read my other articles on Cassini's observations of numerous known moons of Saturn as well as the space probe's new discoveries, Cassini's search for the building blocks of life on Titan, and the beauty and mystery of Saturn's rings as revealed by Cassini.
But four years has quickly grown into 13 impressive years, allowing Cassini to watch the slow progression of Saturn's changing seasons. Once the spacecraft ran out of fuel, NASA would not risk letting it remain aloft, where it might be knocked into Titan or Enceladus.
"Cassini showed us the beauty of Saturn".
Cassini beamed back an image of a lone propeller.
The last flyby sealed Cassini's fate.
Like a true explorer, Cassini has found hidden "lands and treatures". These include Methone, Pallene, Polydeuces, Daphnis, Anthe and Aegaeon.
Also blame the moons - particularly lake-dappled Titan and watery Enceladus - for why Cassini went out in such dramatic fashion.
Colorado's connection to NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn
But as with all things involving spaceflight, the reason for Cassini's collision course with Saturn is nothing if not practical. The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will make its plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15, after 20 years in space .
Future missions will also have to say whether one of Saturn's potentially habitable moons could be home to alien life. NASA claims Enceladus has "water, organic carbon, nitrogen [in the form of ammonia], and an energy source", which no other environment besides Earth can boast.
"Cassini may be gone, but its scientific bounty will keep us occupied for many years", said project scientist Linda Spilker. "If life is eventually discovered in Enceladus' ocean by a mission after Cassini, then our Enceladus discoveries will have been among the top discoveries for all planetary missions". Ground control confirmed it lost contact with the probe at exactly 11.55am GMT.
And if you haven't been paying attention to Cassini's mission at Saturn, well, you've missed out.
Cassini reported its final data early Friday morning.
"Those few last seconds were our first taste of the atmosphere of Saturn", said Watkins. This information will teach us new things about a totally alien environment.
The last image captured by Cassini.
Late previous year, the Cassini spacecraft executed a daring set of ring-grazing orbits. It didn't arrive at Saturn until 2004.
Earl Maize, left, and Julie Webster, right, embrace after the end of Cassini. "As a scientist, I couldn't ask for more". "We'll smile. And we'll want to go back", the United States space agency said.
When our conception of an entire planet and its harmonies is thanks to one probe, it sure as hell is not just a machine. Is this worth your tax dollar? YES!
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