These 11 Pictures of Saturn Will Stun You, Even Now
In one of the most charming moments in astronomy, Galileo, who discovered Saturn’s rings in 1610, took them to be handles. A portable planet.
Today, in one of the most thrilling moments—and, for the mission’s scientists and engineers, perhaps the saddest—the orbiter Cassini-Huygens plunged toward Saturn at nearly 80,000 miles an hour to incinerate itself. “That would be the end of the spacecraft,” a voice announced at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in California, as the team lost Cassini’s signal.
The program manager, Earl Maize, congratulated everyone and then basically did a mic drop. “I'm gonna call this the end of mission,” he said. Extremely well-earned hugs ensued. You can watch the postgame show here.
Looking forward, NASA still has a ton of data (scientifically speaking) to sift through, including the spacecraft’s closest sniff of Saturn’s atmosphere as it melted the orbiter into nothing. Some of that data could drop hints about the formation of the universe.
Cassini, which set out on its seven-year trek in 1997 and had been sending back images and data from Saturn since 2004, began making bolder sorties late last year as it neared the end of its fuel and its life. Since the spring it had swooped between the innermost ring and the planet itself, Star Wars style, to send back ever more granular data and ever grander photos.
Saturn’s moons Titan and Enceladus are two of the most promising places in our solar system for the discovery of extraterrestrial life. A few minutes before 8 am Eastern Time, Cassini hurtled to its end. NASA and its partners in the mission, the European and Italian space agencies, didn’t want to risk the spacecraft’s crashing into one of the planet’s moons someday and contaminating them with alien life. That would be us.
Here are 11 of the best pictures ever to come out of anybody’s trip abroad.