Fireball ending set for Saturn explorer Cassini after 20-year voyage

This illustration by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory highlights some numbers in the final journey Cassini will take this week as it prepares to crash into Saturn on Friday

This illustration by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory highlights some numbers in the final journey Cassini will take this week as it prepares to crash into Saturn on Friday

Cassini has been in space for 20 years and has been closely studying Saturn, its rings and nearby moons, but now that it is running out of fuel, it is preparing for its final mission - a controlled crash into Saturn's dense atmosphere.

Since it first began orbiting Saturn in 2004, Cassini has captured hundreds of thousands of images of the ringed planet - many of those iconic - and has also shed light on vital information about Saturn, it's mesmerizing rings and its 62 known moons. But nothing will be close enough to fully record Cassini's demise. The spacecraft is scheduled to make contact with Earth on September 12th at about 6:19pm PDT (9:19pm EDT).

NASA writes that this last distant encounter is informally referred to by the mission engineers as "the goodbye kiss".

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. They are calling it thus because it is supposed to provide a "gravitational nudge", one that should send the spacecraft towards its spectacular end.

"Cassini has been in a long-term relationship with Titan, with a new rendezvous almost every month for more than a decade".

"We'll be about 2000 kilometres lower than we've ever been, and then the atmosphere will eventually swamp us and overcome us and the spacecraft will melt", says Julie Webster, Cassini's manager of spacecraft operations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The pioneering space probe will leave no trace, keeping the surface of Saturn and its moons pristine for future exploration.

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