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Cassini space probe crashes into Saturn in fiery end to landmark mission

An illustration of the Cassini probe whose landmark mission has come to a end. Credit: Nasa

One of the most ambitious and successful space missions ever undertaken has come to an end as the Cassini space probe crashed into Saturn's atmosphere.

The 20-year mission to get up close and personal with Saturn and its moons ended when the 22-foot robot burnt up in the ringed planet's cloud tops.

Launched in 1997, Cassini made the two billion mile journey to the second largest planet in the solar system, delivering a wealth of scientific data.

With it running out of fuel, scientists decided to crash it into Saturn, and lost contact with the probe at 05:55 PDT (12.55 BST).

Cassini's lost contact with Earth shortly before plunging into Saturn's atmosphere. Credit: Nasa

Confirmation of the loss of signal prompted celebration and some tears in the mission control room at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

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Addressing the mission controllers, project manager Earl Maize said: "Congratulations to you all. This has been an incredible mission ... you're all an incredible team."

Project manager Earl Maize hugs flight director Julie Webster in the mission control room. Credit: Nasa

Right up until it beamed its final signals to Earth eight of the spacecraft's 12 scientific instruments were gathering data from the top of Saturn's atmosphere and transmitting information about its structure and composition.

Cassini's cameras captured their final images of Saturn and its moons several hours earlier.

One of the last images captured by Cassini before the probe destroyed itself. Credit: Nasa

Here's what you need to know about the Cassini mission.

  • Why did scientists crash the probe into Saturn?

Cassini was running out of fuel, meaning it would run out of control if left unchecked and could potentially collision with the moons Titan or Enceladus, which could both conceivably host life.

Nasa decided to crash land the orbiter as they did not want to risk it contaminating the environments with Earth bugs.

  • What was the purpose of the mission?

To study Saturn and its moons up close. There was particular interest in Saturn's biggest moon Titan, which in some ways resembles an early version of Earth.

Cassini captured views of Saturn's atmosphere from closer than ever before as it ventured between the planet and its rings Credit: NASA
  • How did it get to Saturn?

It took seven years from its 1997 launch to reach Saturn, travelling two billion miles. On the way it made fly-bys of Venus, the Earth, and Jupiter to receive gravitational "kicks" that boosted its speed to more than 42,500mph.

  • What discoveries has it made?

It found a global watery ocean beneath the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus that scientists believe could harbour simple life.

It also found seven new moons, six of which have been named, carried out detailed studies of Saturn's rings, and spotted raging hurricanes at both of Saturn's poles. A smaller probe, Huygens, also landed on the surface of Titan.

Enceladus, which thought to be venting water into space Credit: NASA
  • What did Huygens learn about Titan?

The European lander provided the high point of the mission when it successfully touched down on the surface in 2005. It was the first time any spacecraft had landed on an outer solar system world.

As it parachuted down through the moon's atmosphere, Huygens captured images of surprisingly Earth-like features such as shorelines and river systems. Scientists now know Titan has rivers, lakes and seas filled with liquid methane and ethane.

Saturn's biggest moon Titan Credit: NASA
  • How was Cassini powered?

It was powered by a small plutonium-fuelled nuclear reactor. There were protests leading up to the launch in 1997 over fears about what would happen if the rocket crashed on takeoff, spreading radioactive plutonium over Florida and beyond.

A rocket took off from Florida carrying the Cassini spacecraft in 1997 beginning a seven-year, 2 billion-mile journey to Saturn Credit: NASA