PASADENA, Calif. — The Cassini spacecraft will go out in a blaze of glory on Friday morning after two decades of exploration.
The probe, which is out of fuel, will plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere, burn up and disintegrate.
For the past five months, Cassini has completed a series of “daring dives” between the planet and its rings.
“This final phase of the mission, the Grand Finale, has brought unparalleled observations of the planet and its rings from closer than ever before,” the Jet Propulsion Laboratory said.
But Friday’s dive will be like no other. Cassini will send back data for as long as possible before it burns up.
One of the devices sending back information is the University of Colorado’s $12 million ultraviolet imaging spectrograph.
The UVIS has fostered “scores of dazzling discoveries” — including a salty, subterranean ocean on one of Saturn’s moons that scientists think might have conditions favorable for primitive life.
Researchers have high hopes for the final dive.
“We are still making discoveries about the Saturn system studying the Cassini data, and we expect to be making them for some time,” said professor Larry Esposito of CU’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.
Scientists are intentionally destroying the spacecraft so it doesn’t crash into one of Saturn’s moons. This will ensure they remain pristine for future exploration.
Cassini blasted off in October 1997 and arrived in Saturn’s region of the solar system in 2004.
The spacecraft has completed many moon flybys while observing seasonal changes on Saturn and Titan.
Cassini has captured about 450,000 images within the Saturn system, according to NASA.