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62 Breathtaking Pics From Cassini’s Journey to Saturn

Remember being 19? How did you mark that last year of your teens? Did you finally get that tattoo? Go on a road trip with a friend? Vote for the first time? Neat! Well, just a month shy of its 20th birthday, NASA's Cassini will celebrate by purposefully plunging to its death inside Saturn's atmosphere.

In April, Cassini began the first in a series of 22 weekly "dives" between Saturn and its rings before finally descending into the planet's atmosphere. One of the coolest parts of this "grand finale" is that the probe will continue sending back images and data until the very end, providing those of us on Earth with an unprecedented up-close view of Ringy McGiant.

A Truly Impressive Feat

In October 1997, the Cassini mission—a joint project of NASA and the ESA—launched from Cape Canaveral en route to Saturn (with a few "gravity assist" fly-bys of Venus and Jupiter along the way). Cassini officially inserted itself into orbit around Ol' Hula Hoop Face in 2004 and has provided scientists with a steady stream of hot sexy science ever since.

Cassini, named for the 17th-century Italian astronomer who first noted Saturn's rings, has provided humanity with an unprecedented view of the saturnine system, including the planet, its rings, and its many many moons (62 and counting).

In January 2005, Cassini dispatched its Huygens probe to the surface of the moon Titan, which returned detailed photos and data back to scientists on Earth. The original mission officially ended in June 2008, but was granted two extensions, which kept it going until September 15, 2017, when it will all come to a spectacular end.

So, why are scientists purposefully ending what is arguably one of humanity's greatest engineering feats? After 13 years in orbit, Cassini is beginning to run low on fuel, which means that scientists will lose the ability to navigate the vessel. Chances are that, if simply left to the laws of physics, Cassini will circle aimlessly around Saturn and never again interact with any major celestial body. However, thanks to Cassini's insights, scientists can confirm that at least two of Saturn's moons—Enceladus and Titan—contain habitable (or at least "prebiotic") environments. While far from confirmed, there is a chance that these two moons could support some form of primordial life.

Without the ability to control Cassini, there remains a (minute, but definite) chance that the spacecraft might smack into these moons and possibly contaminate these bodies with some hardy Earth stowaways. To be on the safe side, researchers opted for a suicide mission.

With the end in sight, Cassini's control team will attempt a series of perilous maneuvers they would never feel free to attempt otherwise. This finale will provide some unprecedented close-up views of Saturn and its rings before the mission's scheduled end on September 15.

Godspeed, space friend. You're going out like a true gangsta, Cassini. Before it does, though, check out some shots from its long journey below.

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  • 1

    September 13, 2017

    Close-up of Titan. Most of Cassini's images are taken with a 1-megapixel camera shooting 1,024-by-1,024-pixel images. It sometimes does a "summation" image that's smaller, like this one at 512-by-512, which takes less time to send to Earth. As Cassini falls, it seems to default more to the smaller images.
    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 2

    September 8, 2017

    Saturn with rings.
    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 3

    September 7, 2017

    Saturn's Rings.
    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 4

    August 31, 2017

    Saturn in profile.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 5

    August 30, 2017

    A hazy look at Saturn's moon Titan.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 6

    August 28, 2017

    Edge-on with Saturn's rings.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 7

    August 27, 2017

    A dramatic, Hitchcockian profile.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 8

    August 17, 2017

    Saturn's good side.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 9

    August 17, 2017

    Rings as rainbow.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 10

    August 12, 2017

    Looking up.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 11

    August 6, 2017

    A stunning view of the rings.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 12

    August 1, 2017

    A parting shot of frozen Enceladus.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 13

    July 17, 2017

    Things are looking up.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 14

    July 17, 2017

    A view askew.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 15

    July 16, 2017

    On the upside.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 16

    July 11, 2017

    A hazy parting shot of Titan.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 17

    July 5, 2017

    Saturn in profile.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 18

    June 23, 2017

    Saturn's moon Dione.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 19

    June 13, 2017

    Saturn down under.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 20

    June 9, 2017

    This image shows bright methane clouds drifting in the summer skies over Saturn's moon, Titan.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 21

    June 5, 2017

    Edge on with the rings.
    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 22

    May 28, 2017

    The close-up image through the rings showcases how thin they are.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 23

    March 27, 2017

    This image from the North Pole shows the moon Mimas as a tiny spec in the distance.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 24

    May 18, 2017

    Bottoms up.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 25

    May 18, 2017

    Saturn's underside.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 26

    May 17, 2017

    A grainy close-up of the rings.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 27

    May 13, 2017

    Saturn looking dramatic.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 28

    May 5, 2017

    Taken during Cassini's second dive, this image shows a near edge-on view of the rings.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 29

    April 26, 2017

    During it's first "dive," Cassini captured a series of rapid fire images of the top of Saturn's atmosphere, which NASA stitched together into a continuous movie.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 30

    April 12, 2017

    That little dot between the rings? That's Earth.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 31

    March 7, 2017

    This composite photo shows two views of one of the solar system's weirdest moons, Pan. Scientists believe Pan formed inside Saturn's rings and turned into a large dissecting mass along the moon's equator.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 32

    February 3, 2017

    Saturn will reach its solstice in May 2017, and its shadow will creep further out into its rings.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 33

    January 30, 2017

    Here's Mimas.
    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 34

    January 22, 2017

    Saturn's northern pole takes the form of an angular hexagon.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 35

    January 18, 2017

    This view taken from 630,000 miles away shows a dramatic sliver of Saturn and its rings.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 36

    January 16, 2017

    This image shows the tiny moon Daphnis (only five miles across), which orbits within one of the gaps in Saturn's rings and stirs up tiny waves as it goes.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 37

    December 2, 2016

    This infrared image shows the bands in Saturn's atmosphere, which can reach speeds of 1,100mph.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 38

    November 27, 2016

    Enceladus is like many of Saturn's moons; it's icy and cold, but it differs in one intriguing way—it has giant plumes of liquid water shooting from its icy crust. This combination of liquid water and an unknown heat source means that Enceladus could possibly be friendly to life. (You can see some more images of Enceladus here.)

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 39

    November 19, 2016

    This close-up of Saturn's moon Mimas provides a dramatic view of its giant crater (nicknamed "Herschel"). This crater is similar to the one found on the Saturnine moon Tethys, which has been likened to The Death Star from Star Wars.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 40

    November 11, 2016

    This image shows the sun set over Tethy's (AKA "the Death Star" moon) massive canyon. (See 16 More Images of the "Death Star" moon.)

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 41

    September 15, 2016

    Saturn approaching its summer solstice.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 42

    October 23, 2016

    This looks like the moon Mimas is in front of Saturn's rings, but it's actually 28,000 miles off in the distance.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 43

    September 9, 2016

    This image of Saturn's north pole shows some light moon shadows dancing on the planet's surface.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 44

    September 5, 2016

    This image shows the cloud bands at Saturn's northern polar region taking the shape of a hexagon.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 45

    April 8, 2016

    To the right, you can see a disturbance in the outer "F ring," which scientists believe was caused by a small object flying through.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 46

    November 13, 2015

    This composite image shows the scene below Titan's hazy atmosphere using infrared cameras.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 47

    October 27, 2015

    This image shows the moons Janus and Tethys being sliced by Saturn's rings.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 48

    August 20, 2015

    Dione up close.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 49

    August 17, 2015

    This is a last parting shot of the moon Dione.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 50

    May 31, 2015

    Meet Hyperion, Saturn's weird spongy moon.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 51

    February 10, 2015

    This image shows the horizon of the battered moon Rhea.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 52

    January 26, 2015

    Like a big ol' ping-pong ball wearing a space hula hoop.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 53

    July 28, 2014

    This shows liquid water plumes on the surface of Enceladus.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 54

    December 18, 2012

    This vantage shows Saturn's shadow against the rings in dramatic effect.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 55

    March 12, 2010

    This is a close-up of Tethys's giant crater "Odysseus."

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 56

    October 18, 2006

    This image shows an edge-on view of Saturn's "F-Ring" including a chaotic disturbance.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 57

    November 16, 2005

    This is a close-up of Pandora, a so-called shepherd moon that is embedded within Saturn's F-ring. It's only 52 miles across.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 58

    January 14, 2005

    This is a color image from the surface of the moon Titan as captured by the Huygens probe.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 59

    January 7, 2005

    This is a close-up view of Saturn's battered moon, Lapetus.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 60

    June 23, 2004

    This is an up-close view of the irregular moon, Phoebe which is thought to be "one of the darkest known bodies in the solar system."

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 61

    January 1, 2001

    Cassini performed a fly-by of Jupiter for a quick visit and to receive a gravity assist to zoom it towards its final destination.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 62

    Launch! October 15, 1997

    Do you remember where you were on 10/15/97? That's the day Cassini launched from Cape Canaveral on its way to Saturn, which it finally arrived at on June 30, 2004. This is how it all began.

    Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

  • 63

    Illustration

    This illustration shows the probe in orbit around the ringed giant.

    Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read more

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