Update: The live broadcast of Cassini’s Grand Finale have wrapped, but you can replay the event via Facebook Live.
If you could magically teleport across the solar system, Saturn would be a great place to swing by on Friday morning.
Hovering above the ringed planet’s surface, you’d see something amazing. Just after 6:32 a.m. ET, a bus-size object will scream over the cloud tops, burst into millions of pieces, and glow like a meteor.
But this meteor isn’t a rock – it’s NASA’s nuclear-powered Cassini spacecraft plunging to its doom.
There’s little chance that telescopes will see the 20-year, $3.26 billion mission come to an end.
However, NASA TV is broadcasting live online video of the final stages of Cassini’s “Grand Finale,” the moment its last stream of data comes in – and, by extension, confirmation that it’s dead. (You can watch via YouTube, Facebook, or Ustream at the end of this post.)
Why scientists are killing Cassini
NASA launched Cassini toward Saturn in 1997. The probe arrived in 2004 and has studied the planet, its rings of ice and dust, and its collection of mysterious moons ever since.
On Friday, the mission is coming to “a fiery end high above the clouds of Saturn,” Earl Maize, an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who manages the Cassini mission, told reporters during a NASA press conference on Wednesday.
“We’ll be saddened, there’s no doubt about it, at the loss of such an incredible machine,” Maize said. “But I think all of us have a great sense of pride … We set out to do something at Saturn, we did it – we did it extremely well – and we delivered more and more. And we’ve left the world informed, but still wondering.”
NASA is destroying Cassini because of the spacecraft’s most astonishing discovery.
In 2005, the probe detected jets of water shooting out of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It later flew through those geysers, helping confirm the moon hides a salty ocean below its ice-encrusted surface. Titan – a moon of Saturn the size of Mercury – may also have a liquid ocean.
“To find that there’s an ocean world so tiny with a possibility of life, so far from the sun – 10 times farther from the sun than the Earth – has opened up our paradigm of where you might look for life, both within our own solar system and in the exoplanet systems beyond,” Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist and planetary scientist at NASA’s JPL, said of Enceladus during the press conference.
These water worlds may be habitable to aliens, and Cassini is running low on propellant, so NASA is not taking any chances.
“Because of planetary protection, and our desire to go back to Enceladus, and go back to Titan,” said Jim Green, the leader of NASA’s planetary science program, “we must protect those bodies for future exploration.”
How to watch NASA learn that Cassini has died
The space agency will begin live video coverage of Cassini’s death on Friday at 7 a.m. ET.
NASA can’t see the probe destroyed from 932 million miles away, since no other spacecraft exists at Saturn, but it will show an animation of Cassini’s position. Hosts will cover the ins and outs of the final moments live from NASA’s JPL in California, where the mission is headquartered.
NASA expects the last signal – and confirmation of the probe’s destruction – to arrive at Earth around 7:55 a.m. ET. You can watch any of several different broadcasts below at that time.
The space agency’s television network will host its live coverage on YouTube:
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which operates the Cassini mission, is hosting its own live video feed.
You can watch their show (“JPL Live 360”) on Facebook Live.
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