After Wowing Us For 13 Years, Cassini Plans A Dramatic Final Plunge Into Saturn

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<p>The Cassini spacecraft will end its 20-year mission on September 15, 2017 when operators deliberately crash it into Saturn.</p>

The Cassini spacecraft will crash into Saturn on Friday, a dramatic finale to a mission that revolutionized our understanding of the ringed planet. Perhaps its most tantalizing reports were of Saturn's moons: Titan, which hosts a liquid methane sea, and Enceladus, where geysers of water shoot up from the surface. Both are now considered among the top prospects for the search for alien life.

It's because those moons harbor potential for life that scientists are choosing to crash Cassini into Saturn, explains Amanda Hendrix, co-investigator of the spacecraft's Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph, which was built by the University of Colorado. The spacecraft is running low on fuel, and if were left to drift aimlessly, it could accidentally crash into Titan or Enceladus and potentially contaminate those worlds with hitchhiking Earth-grown microbes. Hendrix spoke with Colorado Matters host Nathan Heffel.

Watch a NASA video about the Cassini Finale: