Cassini spacecraft sends final images before taking death plunge

KUSA AND USA TODAY - NASA's Cassini spacecraft makes its "grand finale" Friday morning, diving into Saturn’s atmosphere where it will disintegrate and melt in fewer than two minutes. Watch live in the player above as the craft sends back its final images to Earth, and then dies.

“The spacecraft has been used to its fullest,” Cassini program manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said. “We will have it broadcast data back down to the very, very last minute.”

Launched in 1997, Cassini has been studying Saturn and its moons since 2004. Now Cassini is running low on fuel so managers decided to have it self-destruct on Saturn rather than risk collision with nearby moons.

Since late April, Cassini has been enjoying a strenuous farewell tour of Saturn that saw the spacecraft dip repeatedly into the unexplored territory between Saturn and its nested halos. On this “Grand Finale,” as NASA calls it, the spacecraft has zipped through the gap between planet and rings 20 times, taking the first samples of both the rings and Saturn’s outer atmosphere. The spacecraft also discovered that the planet’s atmosphere and rings are entangled in a complex relationship beyond what researchers had expected.

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