The end is nigh: On Friday, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will send its last messages back home as it plummets through Saturn’s atmosphere until it is ultimately ripped apart. This death dive marks the final phase of a 13-year mission exploring the ringed planet and its bevy of moons.
Cassini will beam back images until Thursday night, and it will keep pinging us with its position until the wee hours of Friday morning, when its antenna will turn away from Earth for the last time.
Technically, we can't watch Cassini's final moments live: On average, Saturn is more than 800 million miles away, so it takes about 83 minutes for data from the spacecraft to arrive on Earth.
But as Cassini reaches its explosive grand finale, NASA will be streaming live feeds from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where scientists will be receiving the final images and data from the spacecraft.
Here’s how to tune in to witness the spacecraft’s swan song.
NASA live on Ustream
NASA is sending Cassini to its fiery demise in an effort to keep the Saturn system clean.
The probe is about to run out of fuel, so mission managers will no longer be able to control its path—and there’s a very real risk that a wandering spacecraft could crash into one of Saturn’s many moons and contaminate it with earthly debris.
Rather than take that risk, NASA decided to send Cassini on one last hurrah: an unprecedented loop between the planet and its famous rings, ending with a final dive into the gas giant itself.
On September 11, Cassini made one last close flyby of the hazy moon Titan, a strange world with a thick atmosphere and lakes of hydrocarbons that could potentially host some kind of bizarre "vinyl life." The final data from that flyby should arrive at Earth on the evening of September 12, according to NASA’s timeline for the end of the mission.
Cassini is expected to take its last snapshots of Saturn on September 15 around 5:58am AEST, and those images should reach Earth later that day.
Finally, at 8:31pm AEST on September 15, Cassini will enter Saturn’s atmosphere, and by 10pm AEST, people on Earth will hear the last lingering echoes of a spacecraft that forever changed our view of this majestic and mysterious planet.
Don't miss Mission Saturn Premiering Sunday 7.30pm AEST/NZST on National Geographic.
Lead Image: In August 2009, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft became the first robotic emissary from Earth to witness an equinox at Saturn, when the sun was shining directly on the giant planet’s equator. PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA, JPL, CASSINI