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Updated at 12:57 pm ET: Today, Sept. 15, NASA's Cassini spacecraft wrapped up 20 historic years in space, and collected data as it crashed into Saturn's atmosphere and burned up like a meteor. Read our parent company Purch's interview on Cassini's death with managing editor Tariq Malik. Read on for our complete coverage:

Main Story: RIP, Cassini: Historic Mission Ends with Fiery Plunge into Saturn

Parting Views: In Photos: Cassini's Last Views from Saturn

Scientists React: Tears and Applause: Cassini Team Reflects on Saturn Plunge

Why did NASA let Cassini hit Saturn?

The $3.2 billion Cassini-Huygens mission — a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency — launched in October 1997 and arrived in the Saturn system on June 30, 2004 (PDT).

Huygens was a piggyback probe that touched down on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in January 2005, pulling off the first-ever soft landing on a body in the outer solar system. The Cassini orbiter, meanwhile, kept circling Saturn, making a number of important discoveries in its 13-plus years at the ringed planet.

For example, the spacecraft spotted geysers of water vapor and other material blasting from the south pole of the icy moon Enceladus. Mission scientists have determined that this stuff is coming from a huge ocean of liquid water beneath the satellite’s shell — and that this ocean may be capable of supporting life as we know it.

Cassini also detected lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan — the first stable bodies of liquid ever discovered on the surface of a world beyond Earth. Scientists think Titan may also be able to support microbial life (though if that life teems in the hydrocarbon seas, it will be very different than organisms here on Earth).

But nothing lasts forever. Cassini is nearly out of fuel; if it runs out completely, the probe’s handlers won’t be able to control it anymore. So they want to dispose of Cassini before things get to that point, which is why they’re sending the spacecraft on a death dive into Saturn on Sept. 15. [Cassini's 'Grand Finale' at Saturn: NASA's Plan in Pictures]

This main goal of this final maneuver is protecting Titan and Enceladus — keeping them clean and pristine.

“In order to avoid the unlikely possibility of Cassini someday colliding with one of these moons, NASA has chosen to safely dispose of the spacecraft in the atmosphere of Saturn,” NASA officials wrote in a statement. “This will ensure that Cassini cannot contaminate any future studies of habitability and potential life on those moons."

Space.com coverage of Cassini's final days

We’ve written a lot about Cassini's Grand Finale — the last phase of its mission, which consists of 22 dives Cassini is making between Saturn’s cloud tops and its innermost rings — and the spacecraft’s impending death.

See our full coverage of Cassini's final days below.

September 2017

Since 2004, the Cassini space probe has orbited Saturn, collecting photos and data that have revolutionized our understanding of the planet and its moons.
Since 2004, the Cassini space probe has orbited Saturn, collecting photos and data that have revolutionized our understanding of the planet and its moons.
Credit: by Karl Tate, Infographics Artist

Sept. 14

Saturn Spectacular: NASA's Free E-Book Offers Top 100 Cassini Images

Cassini's Mark: Plunging Into Saturn, What the NASA Probe Leaves Behind on Earth

Styx Sings Touching Farewell to Cassini Probe Before It Crashes into Saturn

Cassini's Swan Song: How Saturn Probe Will Spend Its Final Day

Accompany Cassini on Its Final Dive into Saturn with Mobile Apps

Sept. 13

The End Is Nigh for Cassini: Saturn Probe Enters Final 48 Hours

Why the Cassini Mission to Saturn Must End in a Fiery Dive

'Vaporize!' Cassini Gets Operatic Saturn Send-Off from 'Star Trek: Voyager' Actor

Cassini's Death Dive Will Protect 2 Possibly Life-Supporting Saturn Moons

Cassini at Saturn in Videos: Latest Mission Events and Amazing Discoveries

Sept. 12

Rings Revealed: How Cassini's Saturn Odyssey Exceeds Expectations:   As NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn heads toward its dramatic dive into the planet's atmosphere, scientists are reflecting on all that the mission has taught us about the ringed planet and its fascinating moons.

Cassini Spacecraft Photos Reveal the Secrets of Saturn's Strangest Moons:  The weird and wonderful Saturn system is home to some truly strange moons. Here's an image gallery of some of the strangest satellites in the bunch.

Cassini Headed for Saturn Plunge After Titan 'Goodbye Kiss':   After a "goodbye kiss" with Saturn's huge moon Titan, NASA's Cassini spacecraft should now be on course for its suicide dive into the ringed planet Friday (Sept. 15).

Sept. 11

Wild! Cassini Probe Spots Weird Waves in Saturn's Rings NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured a spectacular photo of a perplexing wave structure in one of Saturn's rings as the probe headed into its final days at the gas giant.

Sept. 9

Saturn's Icy Moons Are a Little Less Mysterious Thanks to Cassini's Long Mission:  Perhaps its greatest contribution to science is helping us learn about the many icy moons circling Saturn and its elegant rings.

Sept. 8

1 Week Until Cassini's Fatal Saturn Dive: Here's How the Probe Will Spend Its Final DaysThe one-week countdown has begun for the Cassini spacecraft's fatal plunge into Saturn's atmosphere, and the probe has a busy week ahead.

Sept. 7

Saturn Moon Enceladus Shows Off Its Moves for Cassini Saturn's possibly habitable moon Enceladus seems to dance in a gorgeous new video captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

August 2017

No End to Saturn's Mysteries in Cassini's Closing DaysScientists are preparing for a bountiful harvest of science data when the Cassini probe makes its final death plunge into Saturn's atmosphere.

Cassini Snaps Saturn's Strange Polar Vortex During Daring DiveThe bizarre vortex spinning at Saturn's north pole takes center stage in a newly released photo by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

Cassini Saturn Probe Preps for Last HurrahOn Aug. 14, NASA's Cassini spacecraft made the first of five passes through Saturn's upper atmosphere, kicking off the last phase of the mission's "Grand Finale." The probe will end its life with a plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on Sept. 15.

Cassini Probes Last Saturn Mysteries 1 Month from DemiseThe end is nigh for NASA's trailblazing Cassini mission to Saturn as the veteran spacecraft enters its final month in orbit. The probe will burn up like an artificial meteor in the gas giant's upper atmosphere on Sept. 15.

Life in the Saturn System? Cassini Has Shown It's PossibleThe European-American Cassini spacecraft has found that three of Saturn's many moons likely host subsurface oceans and may be capable of supporting life.

July 2017

Saturn's Surprising Rings: The Fascinating Mysteries Cassini Has SolvedBefore the Cassini-Huygens mission, scientists weren't sure how old Saturn's rings are, what they're made of, how they change, how thick they are, how fast they move, how big the ring particles are, or how Saturn's moons its rings. Now, we know.

How Long Is a Day on Saturn? Cassini Is Racing to Find Out in Its Final MonthsHow long is a day on Saturn? The answer is still unclear as the Cassini spacecraft approaches its "Grand Finale" plunge into the ringed planet's atmosphere.

Why Kill Cassini? Saturn Probe's Fate Carefully ConsideredOn Sept. 15, the Cassini spacecraft will destroy itself by burning up in Saturn's atmosphere in order to protect the ringed planet's moons from biological contamination by bacteria from Earth. But there were other possible fates for Cassini.

'Kingdom of Saturn': New Documentary Dives Deep into NASA's Amazing Cassini MissionA new documentary look backs at the triumphs of the Cassini probe ahead of the spacecraft's scheduled death dive into the ringed planet.

June 2017

Happy Anniversary, Cassini! NASA Probe Marks 13 Years at SaturnCassini arrived in orbit around the ringed planet on June 30, 2004, after a nearly seven-year journey through deep space.

Cassini Makes 8th Dive Through Saturn's RingsThe Cassini spacecraft has made its eighth dive between Saturn and its rings, documenting the planetary system up close as it prepares for its Grand Finale plunge into the gas giant on Sept. 15.

May 2017

Cassini Takes Most Dangerous Saturn Ring Dive Yet: The Cassini spacecraft completes its sixth dive between Saturn and its rings today (May 28), and this is the most dangerous dive yet through the inner edge of Saturn's D ring.

Cassini's 'Grand Finale' Dives Could Show How Quickly Saturn's Rings Will FadeNew research suggests Saturn's rings may last a billion years before fading away — and Cassini's ring dives will help test the theory.

Wow! Cassini's Bird's-Eye View of Saturn Plunge Astonishes in New VideoAn amazing new video shows just what NASA's Cassini spacecraft saw during its first "Grand Finale" dive between Saturn's cloud tops and the gas giant's rings last week.

April 2017

Cassini Saturn Probe Survives 1st 'Grand Finale' DiveNASA's Cassini spacecraft has survived its first plunge between Saturn's cloud tops and the giant planet's innermost rings, a region that no probe had ever explored before.

'Giant Hurricane' on Saturn: 1st Images Back from Cassini's Epic Ring DiveNASA's Cassini spacecraft dove between Saturn and its rings yesterday (April 26), snapping the closest-ever views of Saturn's atmosphere. 

Cassini Spacecraft's Ring Dive Yields Saturn SurprisesThe Cassini spacecraft spotted strange atmospheric structures during the first of its 22 dives between the rings and gas body of Saturn, the planet it has studied up close since 2004.

Google Doodle Celebrates Cassini Probe's 'Grand Finale' Saturn DiveToday, Google is honoring NASA's Cassini mission to Saturn with an adorable Google Doodle featuring the spacecraft swooping between the planet and its rings.

Cassini's Grand Finale Is Saving the Best Saturn Science for LastAs Cassini wraps up its 13-year mission in Saturn's system, scientists are preparing for the spacecraft's final burst of observations in the never-before-explored region between the planet and its inner rings.

Cassini's Journey into the Unknown: NASA Engineer Talks Saturn Risks & Rewards (Video)Space.com talked with Joan Stupik about the risks of that first pass between the planet and rings and what scientists hope to learn over the course of its unprecedented journey.

No Turning Back: Titan Flyby Assures Cassini's Crash Into SaturnThere's no turning back now. The Cassini probe's most recent flyby of Saturn's moon Titan puts the spacecraft on a path to crash into the ringed planet.

As Cassini Makes 1st 'Grand Finale' Dive, More Saturn Mysteries RemainRunning low on fuel, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has begun the final (and most daring) phase of its epic mission to Saturn.

Cassini's Final Chapter: 1 More Titan Flyby Before 'Grand Finale' at SaturnNASA's Cassini spacecraft will make its final close flyby of Saturn's moon Titan this weekend in preparation for the mission's grand finale, when it dives down into the planet itself.

Epic Cassini Saturn Mission Begins 'Grand Finale' This MonthNASA's veteran Cassini mission will officially kick off its farewell tour of the Saturn system on April 22 with a final close encounter of the ringed planet's largest moon, Titan. Then, on Sept. 15, Cassini will burn up in Saturn's atmosphere.

2016

One Last Year at Saturn: Cassini Heads for Grand FinaleThe Cassini spacecraft has studied Saturn for 12 years, and the probe has just one more year to go before its final dive into the planet itself.

At Saturn, Cassini Spacecraft Adjusts Orbit for Titan-ic 'Grand Finale'NASA's Cassini Saturn probe has begun reshaping its orbit in preparation for the spacecraft's "grand finale" at the ringed planet next year. The spacecraft performed an engine burn Jan. 23 to set up a Feb. 1 flyby of Saturn's huge moon Titan.

2014

NASA Saturn Probe Will End Mission in Epic 'Grand Finale'Starting in late 2016, Cassini will zip between Saturn and its innermost ring a total of 22 times in a mission phase now known as the "Cassini Grand Finale," which will end when the probe intentionally dives into Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017.

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