The Cassini-Huygens mission launched from Cape Canaveral on October 15, 1997, and last week, just a month shy of 20 years later, one of the most prolific purveyors of beautiful planetary science crashed into Saturn in a bittersweet “Grand Finale.” With its fuel nearly exhausted, this is its final and most dramatic experiment.
The first eight of those years were spent looping around the inner planets to build up speed, but once it arrived at its destination, the science came fast and furious. Every one of its 12 subsequent years around Saturn produced stunning imagery and fascinating data about our solar system’s most photogenic planet. As a celebration of Cassini’s final day, here are some of its most striking images and unexpected discoveries.
We’ll start with its launch and journey to Saturn, then see how Cassini offered new views on the planet’s rings, surface and many many moons — and then the craft’s final descent.