Cassini 'GoodBye Kiss' for Titan

Nearly everything we know today about the handsome giant ringed planet comes from Cassini, the NASA mission that launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004.

Cassini is ending its 13-year tour of the Saturn system with an intentional plunge into the planet to ensure Saturn's moons - in particular Enceladus, with its subsurface ocean and signs of hydrothermal activity - remain pristine for future exploration, Dyches said.

The spacecraft made its closest approach to Titan on September 11 at 12:04 pm PDT (3:04 pm EDT), at an altitude of 73,974 miles (119,049 kilometres) above the moon surface. This adds Titan to the growing list of solar system worlds with underground oceans that could potentially host microbial life, including fellow Saturn moon Enceladus, Jupiter's moons Europa and Ganymede, dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto, and Neptune's moon Triton.

"These final images are sort of like taking a last look around your house or apartment just before you move out", said project scientist Linda Spilker of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

"This final encounter is something of a bittersweet goodbye, but as it has done throughout the mission, Titan's gravity is once again sending Cassini where we need it to go", he said. Titan also has lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons on its surface.

In all, Cassini has provided more than 453,000 pictures of the Saturn, its rings and moons. Many of these discoveries were made possible by the Huygens probe, which Cassini carried from Earth and released to descend onto the planet in 2005.

Cassini will collect vital data that was too risky to obtain earlier in the mission including detailed maps of Saturn's gravity and magnetic fields and extreme close-ups of Saturn's rings and clouds.

When the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004, the planet's northern hemisphere, seen at the top here, was in darkness, just beginning to emerge from winter. This is expected to take place at 7:54 a.m. EDT (12:44 p.m. BST).

Vanessa Coleman