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Cassini's End Viewed In Colorado: 'A Sad Moment, But A Fantastic Mission'

By Tori Mason

BOULDER, Colo. (CBS4) - It was a bittersweet morning in Boulder for the science community at the University of Colorado.

More than 100 people packed the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics and watched Cassini's 20 year journey come to an end.

Scientists in Boulder watch the proceedings early Friday morning. (credit: CBS)

"It's a sad moment, but it was a fantastic mission. Cassini did a huge amount of things. It's sad but inevitable," said research scientist Fran Bagenal.

nasa cassini rings of saturn
(credit: NASA)

CU Boulder is the only university in the world to have constructed instruments that visited every planet in our solar system. When Cassini disintegrated in Saturn's atmosphere Friday morning, it took a $12 million Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph built by CU LASP with it.

Cassini intentionally ended its mission. The spacecraft was running out of fuel and NASA didn't want to risk the spacecraft crashing into one of Saturn's moons.

Earl Maize, Cassini project manager, Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist and Julie Webster, spacecraft operations team manager speak at the end of mission final press conference for the Cassini mission to Saturn, at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, September 15, 2017. After 20 years in space, NASA's famed Cassini spacecraft made its final death plunge into Saturn on, ending a storied mission that scientists say taught us nearly everything we know about Saturn today and transformed the way we think about life elsewhere in the solar system. (credit: ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

"We don't want to leave our junk orbiting around Saturn where some day it might crash and contaminate another world," said MMS Science Data Center lead Kristopher Larsen.

NASA Ends Cassini Spacecraft Mission
Cassini program manager at JPL, Earl Maize, left, and spacecraft operations team manager for the Cassini mission at Saturn, Julie Webster, right, embrace after the Cassini spacecraft plunged into Saturn,September 15, 2017 at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Since its arrival in 2004, the Cassini-Huygens mission has been a discovery machine, revolutionizing our knowledge of the Saturn system and captivating us with data and images never before obtained with such detail and clarity. On Sept. 15, 2017, operators deliberately plunged the spacecraft into Saturn, as Cassini gathered science until the end. Loss of contact with the Cassini spacecraft occurred at 7:55 a.m. EDT (4:55 a.m. PDT). The "plunge" ensures Saturn's moons will remain pristine for future exploration. During Cassini's final days, mission team members from all around the world gathered at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, to celebrate the achievements of this historic mission. (credit: Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)

Cassini collected 600 gigabytes of data, took 400,000 pictures and completely transformed our understanding of the planets. For LASP, losing Cassini was like losing a team member.

"Cassini was launched 20 years ago. The instrument LASP built was designed many years before that, so in way we've been working on this 25 years plus. Several scientists have been on this mission the entire time," said Bill Possel, Director of Mission Operations at LASP.

Bill Possel
Bill Possel (credit: CBS)

Cassini kept working right up until its final hours. Thursday night, the spacecraft took its last pictures of Titan and Saturn's rings.

Tori Mason is an award-winning reporter for CBS4 This Morning. Follow her on Twitter @ToriMasonTV.

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