Cassini spacecraft: 'Magnifying glass' at Saturn until end

For more than a decade, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at Saturn took “a magnifying glass” to the enchanting planet, its moons and rings.

Cassini revealed wet, exotic worlds that might harbor life: the moons Enceladus and Titan. It unveiled moonlets embedded in the rings. It also gave us front-row seats to Saturn’s changing seasons and a storm so vast that it encircled the planet.

“We’ve had an incredible 13-year journey around Saturn, returning data like a giant firehose, just flooding us with data,” project scientist Linda Spilker said this week from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Almost like we’ve taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings.”

Cassini was expected to send back new details about Saturn’s atmosphere right up until its blazing finale on Friday. Its delicate thrusters no match for the thickening atmosphere, the spacecraft was destined to tumble out of control during its rapid plunge and burn up like a meteor in Saturn’s sky.

A brief look back at Cassini:


TIMELINE: Cassini rocketed from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Oct. 15, 1997, carrying with it the European Huygens lander. The spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004. Six months later, Huygens detached from Cassini and successfully parachuted onto the giant moon Titan. Cassini remained in orbit around Saturn, the only spacecraft to ever circle the planet. Last April, NASA put Cassini on an ever-descending series of final orbits,…

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