This story was updated to include more final images from Cassini.
Hours before its meteoric doom in the clouds of Saturn, NASA’s Cassini probe on Thursday sent its final batch of photos to Earth.
Cassini died early Friday, around 6:22 a.m. ET, though news of its destruction took about one hour and 23 minutes to reach NASA. (The planet is 930 million miles away.) It’s very unlikely telescopes on Earth saw the probe explode, though NASA TV is broadcasted live from the Cassini control room during that time.
NASA killed its only Saturn probe because it discovered oceans that may harbor alien life below the surfaces of Enceladus and Titan, two of Saturn’s largest moons. Cassini has nearly run out of propellant, and the space agency wanted to avoid crashing into and contaminating the moons – thus, the nuclear-powered probe was put down.
It may be decades until Earth receives photos as crisp and stunning as those returned by Cassini. Even if NASA funded a new Saturn mission in 2019, that spacecraft would launch in 2024 – then it’d take years to make the trip. Cassini launched from Earth in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004.
The download of Cassini’s last pictures, which began around 5:45 p.m. ET on Thursday, took about 11 hours to finish. Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist and a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told reporters on Wednesday that these images were “the final picture postcards of the Saturn system.”
Here are some of Cassini’s final photos uploaded to the mission’s raw-image gallery and processed by NASA and space fans alike.
Saturn’s moody lighting and rings steal the show in this image.
Another photo shows the rings from a different side of the planet …
… and another.
Spilker said these snapshots of Saturn could be merged into one large, detailed, final portrait of the planet. With some quick editing, one person gave it a shot …
… but hours later, a more polished version appeared on Twitter.
A close-up of Saturn’s rings reveals a lone “propeller,” or object that is (unsuccessfully) trying to carve out a gap in the ice and dust.
Enceladus — which hides a warm, salty ocean under its crust — sets on Saturn’s northern hemisphere in this image.
And this animation of the moon brings a sequence of Enceladus photos to life.
As one of its final subjects, Cassini also photographed Titan, a moon with an atmosphere twice as thick as Earth’s, as well as clouds, weather, and hydrocarbon lakes.
This filtered view of Titan, taken days before Cassini was destroyed, clearly shows one of the moon’s northern lakes.
It may not look like much, but this is a view of the spot on Saturn into which Cassini plunged to its death.
NASA had no view of the probe’s destruction on Friday, but it may have looked something like this.