See Scientists’ Emotional Reactions as Cassini Crashes into Saturn

NASA scientists watched with great emotion early Friday as the Cassini spacecraft crashed into Saturn, completing what has been called one of the most successful planetary missions in history.

Cassini scientists watch for the final loss of signal.

Cassini science team members Nora Alonge (C), Scott Edgington (R) and Jo Pitesky watch for the final loss of signal from the Cassini spacecraft, indicating Cassini’s destruction in Saturn’s atmosphere and the end of Cassini’s 20-year mission | Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Cassini, the first human probe to orbit Saturn, sent its final signal back to earth around 7:55 a.m. EST, just before the end of its life. “The signal from the spacecraft is gone and within the next 45 seconds so will be the spacecraft,” said program manager Earl Maize from mission control. “This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you’re all an incredible team.”

Cassini project manager Earl Maize attends a news conference

Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize attends a news conference at Jet Propulsion Laboratory as NASA’s Cassini spacecraft nears the end of its 20-year mission by crashing into Saturn, on September 13, 2017. | David McNew/Getty Images

Just after contact with the spacecraft was lost, engineers in Mission Control, wearing purple Cassini polo shirts, shook hands and hugged.

A tweet featured a photo showing Maize embracing the spacecraft operations team manager Julie Webster after NASA received the final signal from the spacecraft.

The science and engineering teams who worked on the Cassini project were recognized in a presentation featured in this tweet:

Scientists “understand that it must end,” said Michelle Dougherty, professor of space physics at Britain’s Imperial College London. Dougherty, quoted by USA Today, was lead scientist for one of the spacecraft’s instruments. “But there are a lot of people who don’t really want it to end.”

Cassini scientists address a news conference on Sept. 13, 2017.

Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker (L), Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize, and Director of Planetary Science NASA Jim Green (R) address a news conference as NASA’s Cassini spacecraft nears the end of its 20-year mission by crashing into Saturn, on September 13, 2017. | David McNew/Getty Images

Another scientist, Hunter Waite, described the probe’s death as “emotionally overwhelming. Waite was lead scientist for two Cassini instruments. “I’ve been getting nice little tidbits of scientific discovery handed down to me by Mother Nature for 13 years … I’ll miss that.”

The Cassini probe launched into Saturn’s orbit in 2004 (after taking seven years to reach that point) and had been in orbit ever since. The craft successfully revealed the structure of Saturn’s rings and executed the first landing of a spacecraft in the outer solar system. It also made some discoveries regarding possible life in outer space when it sent photos of two of Saturn’s moons: Titan, with its methane lakes and Enceladus, with its jets of streaming water.