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Cassini Spacecraft Burns Up Like A Meteor In Dramatic End To Saturn Mission

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now a swan song. The spacecraft Cassini was launched almost 20 years ago, and early this morning, its mission ended. At NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, Calif., mission team members monitored the craft as it plunged into Saturn's atmosphere. NASA TV broadcast the excitement live.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: It is 4 a.m. here in California. The sun is not up yet, and more than 1,500 Cassini scientists, engineers, alumni, friends and family have gathered for this moment.

CHANG: Cassini burned up like a meteor.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

During its lifetime, Cassini taught us a lot about Saturn. One of the most important findings was actually the reason for its dramatic end. The Cassini mission discovered that two of Saturn's moons, Titan and Enceladus, could potentially host life, most likely the single-celled variety. By self-destructing, Cassini eliminated the possibility of someday crashing into one of those moons and contaminating it.

CHANG: Science and space lovers marked today's bittersweet moment by following NASA's live feed. The Cassini team provided the play-by-play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Congratulations to you all. This has been an incredible mission, an incredible spacecraft, and you're all an incredible team. I'm going to call this the end of mission - project manager off the net.

(APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson summed up the emotion of the day on Twitter. Farewell, Cassini, he wrote. In this fiery death, Saturn and you are one. V.I.P. - vaporize in peace.

CHANG: (Laughter) And actor Robert Picardo of "Star Trek: Voyager" fame marked the occasion in song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LE CASSINI OPERA")

ROBERT PICARDO: (Singing) Goodbye, Cassini. Your mission's fini. Bravo, Cassini. Have some linguini. You showed us Saturn's rings and lots of pretty things. Huygens probe took a dive early 2005. Landed on Titan - it was exciting. Your mission never failed to surprise - dazzled our eyes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.