In case you missed the memo, Cassini is no more. Although it plunged through the Saturnian skies and fragmented into a million little pieces, the wealth of data it collected on its arduous, glorious journey will continue to lead to scientific papers, discoveries, and the occasional nostalgic, melancholic tear or two from space aficionados around the world.
Back in November, NASA unleashed a beautiful mosaic of images taken by Cassini, said to be its last ever shots before it met its dramatic doom. However, far from stopping there, NASA – almost grimly keen to show us the final few hours of the space probe’s deadly cascade in as much detail as possible – has set another image loose on the public.
Releasing a new image of Saturn’s night side, illuminated by sunlight reflected by its spectacular rings, a white oval adorns the image. This is where Cassini, driven to its own demise by those ruthless engineers at the venerable space agency, would ultimately pierce through the hazy clouds and begin pushing up the daisies on September 15, 2017.
This image, taken through a variety of spectral filters, is a composite, one that’s designed to look as much like the real thing as possible. They were taken on September 14 – less than a day before its personal apocalypse – at a distance of around 634,000 kilometers (394,000 miles) from Saturn.
Prior to its death, Cassini managed to build up a solid picture of the gas giant’s gravitational well and its enigmatic magnetic field, as well as helped to work out what the Solar System’s most aesthetically pleasing world is actually composed of. We also now have a better understanding of its satellites and its rings, particularly its inner slithers, which the spacecraft passed daringly close to multiple times during the appropriately named “Grand Finale” final mission stage.
Ending its 13-year-long exploration of the Saturnian system, and its 20-year-long overall journey through the shadows of space, the metal servant of humanity was purposefully piloted into the gas giant, ensuring that an accidental, contaminating crash onto one of its potentially habitable moons never took place.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) noted that, shortly after entering the atmosphere at breakneck speeds, it “burned up and disintegrated like a meteor”, a send-off many of us, we’re sure, would like when the time comes.
Don’t expect this image to be the last of Cassini, by the way. It sent back reams of data during its mission, which will be thoroughly perused through and analyzed for years, and decades, to come.