We're about to get our best views of Saturn ever thanks to NASA's self-destructing Cassini orbiter.
Launched in 1997, Cassini arrived at the ringed gas giant Saturn in 2004 and delivered the European-built Huygens probe to the surface of its largest moon, Titan, in 2005. For over a decade, the orbiter has spent its time discovering new Saturnian moons, studying the dynamics of the complex system, and snapping thousands of spectacular images of its picturesque host world.
But on September 15 of this year, one month shy of its 20th anniversary in space, Cassini's great adventure will come to an end. On that date, the orbiter will dutifully dive into the deadly embrace of Saturn to be destroyed by atmospheric heat and pressure, becoming one with the planet it has faithfully observed on our behalf for 13 years.
On Tuesday, NASA released a heartrending video tribute to the orbiter's achievements and its ongoing "Grand Finale" of close-pass maneuvers through Saturn's rings and moons. If you're in the habit of anthropomorphizing robotic spacecraft, which we at Motherboard most assuredly are, you may want to have a tissue handy to pre-emptively console yourself about the orbiter's impending swan song.
True to its workhorse reputation, Cassini will continue to relay pictures and measurements back to Earth during its final moments, until its antennae are ruined in the descent. Like so many probes that came before it, including the recent Mercury MESSENGER and Rosetta comet missions, this extraordinary spacecraft will bring us vicariously closer to its adopted world than ever before.
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