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RIP, Cassini: 25 spellbinding Saturn images from NASA’s self-sacrificing probe

The Cassini-Huygens spacecraft has spent nearly two decades in space collecting invaluable data and unprecedented close-ups of the Saturnian system. The craft has logged nearly 5 billion miles on its cosmic odometer, and the library of Cassini images contains more than 400,000 images and counting.

Cassini sports 18 unique scientific instruments and is 12,593 pounds making it one of the largest and heaviest space probes ever constructed.

From the drawing board onward, the Cassini mission was set to be one of the most ambitious unmanned missions ever launched into the cosmos. Tricked out with 18 unique scientific instruments, the spacecraft hit the launchpad at a not-so-svelte 12,593 pounds, making Cassini one of the heaviest and largest interplanetary probes ever constructed. In fact, only the two interplanetary spacecraft (Phobos 1 and Phobos 2) launched by the Soviet Union were more massive.

Once hurled into the solar system, Cassini spent the next seven years braving the unforgiving vacuum of space before even reaching Saturn. A system glitch, meteorite, or haphazard collision with any number of orbiting hunks of space junk could’ve killed this $3 billion dollar mission before it even started. Fortunately, this was not Cassini’s fate, and on July 1, 2004, the probe finally arrived at its destination. The spacecraft would spend the next 13 years investigating the enigmatic gas giant and relaying data back to us earthlings nearly 900 million miles away.

After successfully executing more than 2.5 million commands including 162 targeted flybys of Saturn’s moons, Cassini boasts a rather lengthy list of accomplishments. Outside of discovering previously unknown moons (no big deal) and observing massive hurricanes at both Saturnian poles, the craft also detected the elements necessary to potentially host living organisms on the ice-spewing satellite, Enceladus.

NASA illustration of Cassini on final dive towards Saturn. NASA/JPL

Unfortunately, in the cosmic scheme of things, nothing lasts forever, and even the stalwart Cassini is not exempt from the inevitable. Protecting these aforementioned potentially life-sustaining “ocean worlds” is the central purpose of the so-called Grand Finale that will culminate with a final “suicide dive” into Saturn’s tumultuous atmosphere. This subsequent series of dives toward the planet will prevent Cassini from possibly contaminating one of these potentially life-sustaining moons with sturdy microbes that may have survived the journey from Earth.

The craft began the first of these plunges in August and earlier this week Cassini received its “goodbye kiss” from Titan, a final flyby and consequential gravitational nudge toward Saturn. The steadfast craft is expected to crash into the planet’s atmosphere on September 15, 2017, transmitting data to the bitter end.

Of the more than nearly half a million images the probe has snapped during its 20 years adrift in the solar system, these are 25 of our favorite. Godspeed, Cassini.

If you’re craving more stunning glimpses of our celestial neighbors and beyond, we’ve also curated a gallery of the best photos of outer space.

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