It’s been NASA’s plan for months, but now that it’s here it’s an incredibly bittersweet moment: Cassini, the spacecraft which has sent back some jaw-dropping images and data from Saturn, is currently making its final plunge towards the planet, and it won’t survive the trip. Bringing an end to its epic 13-year mission, the reliable craft is now just hours away from slamming into Saturn’s atmosphere and bringing its existence to a fiery end.
The dive that Cassini is currently performing is the very last part of its Grand Finale which included 22 spectacular dives through Saturn’s iconic rings. It send back some gorgeous snapshots along the way and, now that its extended mission is complete, it’s time for the spacecraft to perform the ultimate sacrifice.
You can track the current position of Cassini, relative to Saturn, on NASA’s live-updating tracker. The site provides an up-to-the-second countdown of the final dive and the current distance between Cassini as the planet itself.
Soon, the craft will reach the end of its journey. When it does, it will cruise into the Saturn atmosphere, where the friction will cause it to essentially disintegrate in a ball of flame. That’s all part of the plan, of course, since NASA doesn’t want to leave any part of the craft intact, as it would essentially be space litter. As it begins to burn up, it will continue to send back observations and data as long as it can before the signal goes dark and Cassini is no more.
It’s a historic moment, but it’s also a bit of a bummer. Cassini has provided some impossibly great photos of Saturn and its moons over the past decade, and it’s gone above and beyond what was originally planned for it. It will be sorely missed.