Cassini’s ‘Last Image’ Of Saturn Goes Viral, But Was An Artist’s Creation All Along

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If you saw someone posting what they claim is the Cassini spacecraft’s “last image” before crash landing into Saturn, you’ll want to think twice before retweeting it or sharing it on social media. A report from Gizmodo set the record straight on Tuesday, confirming what several users noted as the photo kept racking up views and shares — the image in question was an artist’s depiction of Cassini’s “Grand Finale,” and not an actual photo.

According to Gizmodo, the supposed final image from the Cassini probe drew interest from social media users in recent days, as it went viral and garnered “tens and thousands of views and shares.” The image originally came from the NASA website, which seemed to back up claims that it was a legitimate photo taken during the spacecraft’s Grand Finale. However, the publication stressed that Cassini’s “last image” was actually created with computer graphics software and that NASA’s website clearly stated that the image was an “artist’s concept” depicting an over-the-shoulder view of Cassini as it prepared to crash into Saturn.

Gizmodo added further background on Cassini’s Grand Finale in its report, noting that the event, which took place on September 15, 2017, marked the end of the spacecraft’s exploration of Saturn, almost 20 years after it was launched in October 1997. NASA’s overview of the Grand Finale states that the spacecraft first entered Saturn’s orbit on June 30, 2004, then had its mission extended twice after its four-year primary mission ended, with the second extension lasting seven years and resulting in many significant discoveries relating to the ringed planet and its moons, most notably Enceladus and Titan.

“Beginning in 2010, Cassini began a seven-year mission extension in which it completed many moon flybys while observing seasonal changes on Saturn and Titan. The plan for this phase of the mission was to expend all of the spacecraft’s propellant while exploring Saturn, ending with a plunge into the planet’s atmosphere,” read NASA’s description of the second extension.

The groundwork for its Grand Finale was laid in April 2017, when Cassini was “placed on an impact course” that included more than five months of “daring” dives between Saturn and its rings, spanning a total of 22 orbits.

While Gizmodo made sure to debunk the viral photo of what was claimed to be Cassini’s “last image,” the publication also noted that there is an actual last photo that exists and that it was taken on September 14, 2017, and later posted on NASA’s website. According to the space agency, this photo was shot about 394,000 miles above Saturn’s surface, right at the point of Cassini’s atmospheric entry.