These are the last close-up photos of Saturn we may see in decades

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute; Kevin M. Gill/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)An illustration of the Cassini probe flying over Saturn.

With just hours left before its meteoric doom in the clouds of Saturn, NASA’s Cassini probe on Thursday sent its final batch of photos to planet Earth.

Cassini is scheduled to die Friday around 6:22 a.m. EDT, though news of its destruction will take about 1 hour and 23 minutes to reach NASA. (The planet is 930 million miles away.) While it’s very unlikely telescopes on Earth will record the event, NASA TV is broadcasting live from the Cassini control room during that time.

NASA is killing its only Saturn probe because it discovered oceans which may harbour alien life on Enceladus and Titan — two of Saturn’s largest moons. Cassini has nearly run out of propellant, and the space agency wants to avoid crashing into and contaminating the moons; thus, the nuclear-powered probe is being put down.

It may be decades until Earth receives views as crisp and stunning as those returned by Cassini. Even if NASA funds a new Saturn mission in 2019, that spacecraft would launch in 2024 — then it’d take years to make the trip. (Cassini launched from Earth in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004.)

The download of Cassini’s last pictures, which began around 5:45 p.m. EDT on Thursday, should take about 11 hours to finish. Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist and a planetary scientist at NASA JPL, told reporters on Wednesday that these images are “the final picture postcards of the Saturn system.”

Here are some of Cassini’s final photos uploaded to the mission’s raw image gallery and processed by space fans on social media.

Saturn's moody lighting and rings steal the show in this image.

Another photo shows the rings from a different side of the planet ...

Spilker said that NASA will merge many images of Saturn into one large, detailed, and final portrait of the planet. With a quick collage, it looks like this ...

... but with more processing work, it will eventually look something like this.

This colorized image shows Enceladus -- which hides a warm, salty ocean under its crust -- setting on Saturn's northern hemisphere.

This animation combines several Enceladus photos to show the moon setting behind the planet.

As one of it's final subjects, Cassini also photographed Titan: a moon with an atmosphere twice as thick as Earth's that has clouds, weather, and hydrocarbon lakes.

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