Fireball ending set for Saturn explorer Cassini after 20-year voyage

The earth as seen from Saturn

The earth as seen from Saturn

Until Cassini's arrival at Saturn in 2004, humanity had never viewed Saturn up close and personal.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is headed toward its September 15th, 2017 plunge into Saturn, following a final, distant flyby of the planet's giant moon Titan.

A 20-year-long deep space mission will come to an end on Friday when NASA's Cassini spacecraft will deliberately crash into Saturn's atmosphere, and Australian astronomers will be in the box seat to capture the craft's final moments. But nothing will be close enough to fully record Cassini's demise. This was reported as having taken place on September 11, at 12:04 p.m. PDT or 03:04 p.m. EDT. Its fuel exhausted, its missions to explore Saturn and its moons triumphantly fulfilled, the two-and-a-half-ton vehicle will burn up as it falls into the red planet's atmosphere.

As the spacecraft is once again back online, it also began streaming back the data it gathered during its latest encounter with the moon.

NASA writes that this last distant encounter is informally referred to by the mission engineers as "the goodbye kiss". NASA later updated its post and confirmed that Cassini was back in contact with the mission's ground controllers.

"We'll be about 2000 kilometres lower than we've ever been, and then the atmosphere will eventually swamp us and overcome us and the spacecraft will melt", says Julie Webster, Cassini's manager of spacecraft operations at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

"And in the same way, Cassini is taking a last look around the Saturn system, Cassini's home for the last 13 years".