- NASA’s 20-year Cassini mission ended in September, when the probe plunged into Saturn.
- The spacecraft sent back a remarkable last batch of images during its grand finale.
- A new composite image shows a stunning view of Saturn as a final farewell to the planet.
On September 15, NASA’s 20-year, $US3.26 billion Cassini mission at Saturn came to an end.
The Cassini probe launched in 1997 and orbited Saturn for 13 years, taking images of the planet and its moons and sending troves of data back for scientists to analyse.
Before the spacecraft ran out of fuel, NASA scientists chose to kill the probe by sending it hurtling into Saturn to avoid the possibility of it crashing into one of Saturn’s potentially life-fostering moons.
Before that grand finale, Cassini sent back one last batch of images. Last week, the team behind the mission – which included scientists from NASA and at research institutions across the country – released a remarkable new composite image of Saturn based on 42 separate photos the spacecraft took.
The mosaic is meant as a final farewell to Cassini and Saturn. The images were originally taken in a sequence of reds, greens, and blues, but were stitched together to depict the entire planet in its natural colours, rings and moons included.
“It was all too easy to get used to receiving new images from the Saturn system on a daily basis, seeing new sights, watching things change,” Elizabeth Turtle, an imaging team associate at Johns Hopkins University, said in a statement. “It was hard to say goodbye, but how lucky we were to be able to see it all through Cassini’s eyes!”
Here’s another view of the image, this time with the moons labelled:
Beyond its beautiful images, the Cassini mission yielded incredible insights about Saturn’s rings and moons. Scientists discovered an ancient ocean hidden beneath layers of ice on Enceladus, one of the planet’s smallest moons.
That means the watery world could potentially harbour alien microbes – which is why scientists did not want to risk letting Cassini run out of fuel completely, since it could have eventually crashed into Enceladus and contaminated it.
Carolyn Porco led Cassini’s imaging team at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and previously worked on the Voyager mission, which was responsible for our closest images of Saturn before Cassini.
“For 37 years, Voyager 1’s last view of Saturn has been, for me, one of the most evocative images ever taken in the exploration of the solar system,” Porco said in a statement. “In a similar vein, this ‘Farewell to Saturn’ will forevermore serve as a reminder of the dramatic conclusion to that wondrous time humankind spent in intimate study of our Sun’s most iconic planetary system.”
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