Scientists aren’t exactly known for their public displays of emotion, but sometimes, that’s what a moment calls for.
On Friday, as the long-running Cassini mission at Saturn came to a close, mission managers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California couldn’t help but get a little teary as they said goodbye to a spacecraft that had been in space for two decades.
Even though the mission’s end was planned for years, it didn’t make it any easier to watch lines of data come back indicating that Cassini had broken apart in Saturn’s atmosphere, becoming a part of the planet it studied at close range for 13 years.
“Things never will be quite the same for those of us on the Cassini team now that the spacecraft is no longer flying,” Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker, said in a statement. “But, we take comfort knowing that every time we look up at Saturn in the night sky, part of Cassini will be there, too.”
Some of the researchers on the Cassini project have been with the mission since it began, as it launched to space in 1997, when Bill Clinton was still president. It arrived at its target planet in 2004.
During its time at Saturn, the probe has re-shaped our understanding of the ringed planet and its place in the solar system, sending back amazing photos and scientific data about the world’s moons, rings, and environment.
For example, the spacecraft is responsible for helping us see the lakes and rivers of methane below the moon Titan’s hazy atmosphere. Cassini also helped researchers figure out that Enceladus likely has an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy surface.