The initial mission of Cassini spacecraft was meant to last 4 years but the spacecraft was so robust and the information it collected was so startling that NASA extended the mission twice. To avoid that, Cassini fell into Saturn's atmosphere and burnt up like a meteor, spreading itself across the planet it has been exploring since it set off from Earth in 1997.
Launched in 1997, the 3.26-billion-U.S. -dollar Cassini-Huygens mission has been touring the Saturn system since arriving at the sixth planet from our sun in 2004.
As planned, data from eight of Cassini's science instruments was beamed back to Earth. Cassini successfully sailed through the gap 22 times, providing ever better close-ups of Saturn.
"Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying", said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL.
(NASA JPL) Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, awaited the final transmission from the Cassini spacecraft as it plunged into Saturn's atmosphere ending its 20-year voyage of discovery.
RINGS: Cassini discovered swarms of moonlets in Saturn's rings, including one called Peggy that made the short list for final picture-taking.
The information Cassini gathered has enabled scientists to make discoveries that have warranted the publication of almost 4,000 scientific papers, according media reports.
During its final journey, Cassini was sending back new and unique science to the very end.
Ringscape – one of final images NASA JPL-Caltech Space Science Institute
The spacecraft's final signal was like an echo.
"For me, September 15 is not the end of the mission".
The mission is regarded as one of the most ambitious and successful ever undertaken. My students and myself have at least five papers done with the Cassini data, to be submitted later this year.
In a recently completed study, a variety of potential mission concepts are discussed, delivered to NASA in preparation for the next Decadal Survey, including orbiters, flybys and probes that would dive into Uranus' atmosphere to study its composition.
When will a follow-on to Cassini fly?
"On Titan, we have methane and ethane rain, and methane and ethane lakes and seas". That would make them relatively young compared with Saturn; perhaps a moon or comet came too close to Saturn and broke apart, forming the rings 100 million years ago.
NASA associate administrator for science Thomas Zurbuchen and planetary science division director Jim Green have been asked that question several times in recent days - when will the next Saturn probe be launched? It has studied the giant planet's giant storm systems, sent back remarkable close-up photos of the planet's colorful bands, rings and many moons, and helped scientists realize that two of those moons - Titan and Enceladus - may harbor the conditions for life.