NASA's Cassini mission beams back final images before diving into the Saturnian atmosphere

The spacecraft emptied its onboard solid-state recorder of all science data, prior to reconfiguring for a near-real-time data relay during the final plunge.

NASA's Cassini mission has transmitted the final images taken by its imaging cameras just before burning up in the Saturnian atmosphere in a final, science rich dive. The spacecraft emptied its onboard solid-state recorder of all science data, prior to reconfiguring for a near-real-time data relay during the final plunge, NASA said. Normally the spacecraft takes five or six hours to relay observations after making them, but for the final fiery plunge, the data is being transmitted in near real time.

NASAs Cassini mission beams back final images before diving into the Saturnian atmosphere

An artist's impression of Cassini entering the Saturnian atmosphere. Image: NASA.

The last unprocessed images of the Saturn system shared by NASA were taken by the Cassini spacecraft on Wednesday. Cassini ended its 13-year tour of the Saturn system with an intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn's moons - in particular Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity - remain pristine for future exploration. NASA does not want to contaminate the moon, which has all the necessary ingredients to support life as we know it on Earth, with microbes that may have piggybacked on the spacecraft.

The absolute last image of Saturn captured by Cassini shows the impact site. The imaging instrument on board has a wide angle camera and a narrow angle camera. The cameras were turned off before the dive into the atmosphere, but the other instruments continued to beam back observations till the very moment Cassini turned into a ball of fire.

The last image captured by Cassini. Image: NASA.

The last image captured by Cassini. Image: NASA.

Cassini also beamed back an infrared image of the site of impact. The actual point where Cassini entered the Saturnian atmosphere is marked by the circle.

Infrared image of Cassini's final point of impact. Image: NASA.

Infrared image of Cassini's final point of impact. Image: NASA.

This is the final look that Cassini had of Enceladus. A little before initiating the final maneuver, Cassini also captured images of the water spouts from the south pole of Enceladus one final time.

Goodbye to Enceladus. Image: NASA.

Goodbye to Enceladus. Image: NASA.

Cassini also beamed back a final image of the ringscape of Saturn. The image was captured on 13 September, 2017.

Final ringscape. Image: Cassini.

Final ringscape. Image: Cassini.

Cassini beamed back an image of a lone propeller. These are features on the rings of Saturn, that are larger than the particles that make up the ring, but smaller than the moons. The propellers are named after aviators, and there are entire belts of propellers in some regions of the rings.

A lone propeller. Image: NASA.

A lone propeller. Image: NASA.

One of the final images beamed back by Cassini is a view of Saturn along with its rings.

Image: NASA

Image: NASA

This is the last full colour image of Titan captured by Cassini. The hydrocarbon rich atmosphere is extremely hazy and it is difficult to see any features. The methane seas on Titan may host an exotic form of life.

The last image of Titan captured by Cassini. Image: NASA.

The last image of Titan captured by Cassini. Image: NASA.

This image of Titan was captured during the "Goodbye Kiss" maneuver, where the spacecraft used the gravity of the moon shift into an orbit that would put it on the path to dive into the atmosphere of Saturn.

A Goodbye Kiss to Titan. Image: NASA.

A Goodbye Kiss to Titan. Image: NASA.

The spacecraft's fateful dive is the final beat in the mission's Grand Finale, 22 weekly dives, which began in late April, through the gap between Saturn and its rings. No spacecraft has ever ventured so close to the planet before. The mission's final loss of contact with the Cassini spacecraft took place on Friday at 7.55 a.m. EDT (5.25 pm Friday India time). Due to the travel time for radio signals from Saturn, which changes as both Earth and the ringed planet travel around the Sun, events currently take place there 83 minutes before they are observed on Earth.

This means that, although the spacecraft began to tumble and go out of communication at 6.31 a.m. EDT (4.01 pm India time) at Saturn, the signal from that event was not received on Earth until 83 minutes later. "The spacecraft's final signal will be like an echo. It will radiate across the solar system for nearly an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

"Even though we'll know that, at Saturn, Cassini has already met its fate, its mission isn't truly over for us on Earth as long as we're still receiving its signal," Maize said. Cassini's last transmissions will be received by antennas at NASA's Deep Space Network complex in Canberra, Australia.

With inputs from IANS

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