PASADENA ( – Until Cassini’s arrival at Saturn in 2004, humanity had never viewed Saturn up close and personal.

In all, Cassini has provided more than 453,000 pictures of Saturn, its rings and moons. The final snapshots will be coming down hours before the spacecraft’s fiery finish on Friday. Cassini will burn up like a meteor in Saturn’s sky.

“These final images are sort of like taking a last look around your house or apartment just before you move out,” said project scientist Linda Spilker of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which manages Cassini. “You walk around the downstairs, as you go upstairs, you run your fingers along the banister, you look at your old room and memories across the years come flooding back.

JPL officials said they expect to lose contact with the spacecraft at about 4:55 a.m. Friday, one minute after it enters Saturn’s atmosphere around 1,190 miles above the planet’s cloud tops and its thrusters are no longer able to keep the ship stable. Cassini will then plunge into the planet at a speed of about 70,000 mph.

“The spacecraft’s final signal will be like an echo,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “It will radiate across the solar system for nearly an hour and a half after Cassini itself has gone. Even though we’ll know that, at Saturn, Cassini has already met its fate, its mission isn’t truly over for us on Earth as long as we’re still receiving its signal.”

During the final plunge, eight of Cassini’s science instruments will be collecting data until the last possible minute, including data on the composition and structure of the planet’s atmosphere. It’s final data will be received on Earth at NASA’s Deep Space Network complex in Canberra, Australia.

No photos will be taken during Cassini’s final plunge through Saturn’s atmosphere.

Telescopes on the ground — nearly a billion miles away — will attempt to capture the cosmic flash. But nothing will be close enough to fully record Cassini’s demise.

(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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