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Photos: NASA, JPL Bid Farewell To Cassini Spacecraft After Its Nearly 20-Year Journey Through Space

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It was an emotional scene at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory on early Friday morning, as scientists and researchers bade farewell to the Cassini spacecraft, which launched in 1997 on a journey to give us a portrait of Saturn and its many moons. Upon reaching the ringed planet in 2004, it underwent an extensive photoshoot in which it snapped approximately 400,000 photos (some of which we included above), according to NPR. In the process, it also discovered at least seven new moons, orbited the planet 293 times, and unloaded the Huygens lander onto the surface of Titan, another one of Saturn’s moons.

After a job well done, Cassini was bound for retirement. But researchers, not wanting a floating piece of space debris to threaten the moons, opted to send the spacecraft plunging into the planet’s atmosphere, where it would break up into pieces. That bittersweet moment happened this early morning, when the spacecraft descended into the upper atmosphere of the planet that had served as the object of its purpose for 13 years. The final signal was received at 4:55 a.m. PST, indicating that the Cassini had been vaporized. Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize announced the “end of mission” upon receiving word of the spaceraft’s demise. “I hope you’re all as deeply proud of this amazing accomplishment,” he said to his project team. “Congratulations to you all. This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you’re all an incredible team.” NASA tweeted a video of the moving announcement:

Before the curtains came down, everyone in the press room was monitoring the spacecraft’s last signal too:

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"It's a bittersweet, but fond, farewell to a mission that leaves behind an incredible wealth of discoveries that have changed our view of Saturn and our solar system, and will continue to shape future missions and research," Michael Watkins, director of JPL, said in a statement. As noted by NASA, JPL designed, developed and assembled the spacecraft, as well as manage the mission for the agency.

Cassini, always the workhorse, was working up to its final moments. It took shots of the ocean-bearing moon Enceladus just hours before it hurtled into the planet; from the view point of Cassini, it looked as if Enceladus was making its own descent into Saturn.

If you’re a space pirate who’s looking to salvage some of Cassini’s remains, you can apparently find the loot here:

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Also, if this has all been too abstract for you, here’s an artist rendering of what it’s like to crash about 12,000 pounds of machinery into a gas giant, set to a sweeping score:

Obviously, Cassini’s mission itself was stirring and a big accomplishment. But there was something extra about our connection with the spacecraft; its lifetime paralleled a phase of significant change here on Earth. When it first launched in 1997, we were still getting acquainted with the Internet. And when it reached the planet in 2004, we’d just first logged onto Facebook. Nothing reflects this better than this tweet of NASA's 1997 homepage (we’re curious about “What’s Hot!”):

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And, lastly, some final words from everyone’s favorite JPL engineer, Bobak Ferdowsi, to help us cope: