NASA later updated its post and confirmed that Cassini was back in contact with the mission's ground controllers. Among Cassini's objectives is the study of Saturn's rings, Titan's atmosphere, and the behavior of Saturn's magnetosphere.
Those transmissions will continue, Maize said, until atmospheric forces on the spacecraft overcome the thrusters, which will fire as long as possible to keep Cassini's high-gain antenna pointed at Earth.
But they haven't. "As much as I want to have a rational reaction", says Jonathan Lunine, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, "it's still really hard to say 'This is it for Cassini, ' that we won't be getting any more data from it after Friday, ever".
The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer will act as the "nose" of the spacecraft, directly sampling the composition and structure of the atmosphere - something that can't be done from orbit, said Hunter Waite, team lead for the spectrometer. "Almost like we've taken a magnifying glass to the planet and the rings". There are some huge gaps in the rings where the atmosphere is silent and less dusty.
On Thursday, the cameras took their final images of Saturn and its system.
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Just before 2am today the Cassini spacecraft sent a routine message, as it has done dozens of times before during its 4.9 billion-mile mission. There, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he would attend the final moments of the mission, along with other UA planetary scientists who have participated in the project.
Cassini's fate was sealed Monday, when it made its final flyby past Titan, Saturn's largest moon.
What kind of mission will actually follow up on the curiosities Cassini has piqued? We know Saturn had to capture these gases during its early evolution, and more exact measurements of the ratio of the lighter gas to the heavier gas will give us a much better understanding of how this happened.
It found a global watery ocean beneath the icy surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus that scientists believe could harbour simple life. During its time in orbit, Cassini has discovered numerous moons, made over a hundred fly-bys of Titan, taken hundreds of thousands of photographs of Saturn and its 62 moons, and provided the data to identify 101 saltwater geysers erupting on the 6th largest moon, Enceladus.
Scientists plan to collect data from the spacecraft's instruments until the very end of the mission.
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But Friday's dive will be like no other.
The last hours of Cassini's mission could provide valuable data to answer some of researchers' most persistent questions: How was Saturn formed, does it have a solid core, and how long is a Saturnian day?
That plunge will mark the end of a mission that dates back to the 1980s and, after close calls with potential cancellation in the 1990s, was launched in 1997.
NASA will select several of the proposals late this year for additional studies. "In fact, you can think of Cassini becoming the first Saturn probe".
Even though Cassini has been in space for 20 years - including the seven-year trip to Saturn - microbes from Earth could still be viable without air, water or protection from radiation.
Cassini arrived at the ringed planet in July 2004.
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