Seeing Saturn: An wonderful milestone for Cassini

"This is the final chapter of an wonderful mission, but it's also a new beginning", said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. When it comes to Saturn there is a huge move of the scientific community to go back to Enceladus, to go back to Titan, to go deeper and try to look for signs of life.

A European Space Agency probe carried by the orbiter, called Huygens, made worldwide headlines when it landed on Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons, in January 2005.

Cassini scientists have another year's worth of funding to tease more secrets out of the data.

No photos were taken during Cassini's final plunge through Saturn's atmosphere.

The Cassini spacecraft dove into the atmosphere of Saturn on Friday, ending its mission and a "thrilling epoch in the exploration of our solar system", NASA reported.

This 14 hour time lapse shows Enceladus and its iconic plume of water ice for the last time. What we learn from these ultra-close passes over the planet could be some of the most exciting revelations ever returned by the long-lived spacecraft.

The icy moon, Enceladus, setting beyond the limb of Saturn.

According to NASA engineers, Cassini's instruments were still functional at the time of its death but the problem was with its exhausted fuel.

The end of Cassini's voyage, which began with its launch in 1997 and a seven-year journey to Saturn, was met with applause, hugs and tears from NASA officials. This image was taken from approximately 2 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) from Titan. Project officials invited ground telescopes to look for Cassini's last-gasp flash, but weren't hopeful it would be spotted against the vast backdrop of the solar system's second biggest planet.

The latest images range from close-ups of Saturn's rings to snaps from farther afield. Also visible are the waves the tiny natural satellite raises in the edges of the Keeler Gap.

On September 14, Cassini's cameras captured their final pictures. Propellers are disturbances caused by small moonlets embedded in Saturn's rings. Although the spacecraft may be gone after the finale, the enormous amount of data collected about Saturn, its magnetosphere, rings and moons during this last dive is expected to yield new discoveries for decades.

"Not only do we have an environment that just is overwhelming with an abundance of scientific mysteries and puzzles, but we've had a spacecraft that's been able to exploit it", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "We've only scratched the surface of what we can learn from the mountain of data it has sent back over its lifetime".

Vanessa Coleman