Farewell, sweet prince. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has returned its final images from Saturn, as it begins its death dive into the gas giant.
Cassini is now just hours away from entering Saturn’s atmosphere (you can watch live from mission control on NASA TV). It’s predicted to break apart at 6.32am EDT (11.32am BST), with its final signal being received back on Earth 83 minutes later at 7.55am EDT (12.55pm BST).
Before then, though, Cassini has returned some of its last views of Saturn and its moons. These include shots of the planet's rings, the icy moon Enceladus, and close-ups of storms on Saturn.
We've been treated to some truly stunning images from Cassini over its 13 years at Saturn, so it's pretty sad that these are the last new images of the gas giant and its moons we'll see for the forseeable future.
Cassini is not taking images until its very final moments because the images are too large to send back in time before its demise. Instead, it will be gathering vital data with its other instruments that will only be possible thanks to this finale.
“The data rate is too low to send images along with the other high-value science,” Preston Dyches of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory told IFLScience.
These dives will hopefully tell us more about how much material is in the rings. This should help us not only discover their origins, but also work out the amount of mass in the rings. Particle detectors on Cassini will also detect icy ring particles being funnelled into Saturn’s atmosphere by its magnetic field. Its mass spectrometer, meanwhile, will sample Saturn’s atmosphere, and tell us what’s its made of.
Cassini has taken more than 450,000 images since its mission at Saturn began in 2014. Some of these revealed lakes and seas on Titan, others revealed jets of water gushing from Enceladus, and more still showed us the incredible splendor of Saturn.
Those images will never go away. But this final batch of images will be the last time we ever get a view from Saturn's orbit for the foreseeable future. No other mission to Saturn is currently in the works, although NASA is looking into sending a probe to Enceladus to hunt for signs of life.
In a few hours, Cassini will be gone, leaving Saturn devoid of humanity before George W Bush’s second term. These images serve as a reminder of just how incredible planetary exploration can be. Where will we go next?