NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is no more: It disintegrated in the skies above Saturn early Friday, following a remarkable journey of 20 years.

Confirmation of Cassini’s expected demise came about 7:55 a.m. EDT. That’s when radio signals from the spacecraft — a final burst of scientific data — came to an abrupt halt. The radio waves went flat, and the spacecraft fell silent.

Cassini actually burned up like a meteor 83 minutes earlier, as it dove through Saturn’s atmosphere, becoming one with the planet it set out in 1997 to explore. But it took that long for the last signal to arrive at Earth.

More than 1,500 people, many of them past and present team members, jammed NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory for what was described as both a vigil and celebration. Even more gathered at nearby California Institute of Technology.

The only spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn, Cassini showed us the planet, its rings and moons up close in all their glory. Perhaps most tantalizing, ocean worlds were unveiled on the moons Enceladus and Titan, which could possibly harbor life.

Cassini snapped its “last memento photos” of the Saturn system Thursday. Dutiful to the end, it sampled Saturn’s atmosphere Friday morning as it made its final, fateful plunge.


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