Our home world framed by the rings of Saturn


At this point, Cassini will beam its last batch of images.

But we all exist in a thin envelope of gas that surrounds the surface of Earth: a 7,917-mile-wide ball of rock that's flying through the void of space at a speed of about 450,000 miles per hour, at least relative to the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

This graphic shows Cassini's flight path during the final two phases of its mission.

The mission is set to end on September 15, with the spacecraft crashing into Saturn.

Perhaps the photo was a rightful goodbye to Cassini, as the spacecraft is scheduled to begin its crash at Saturn on April 23. For a targeted flyby, the spacecraft uses its rocket engine or thrusters to accurately aim toward the encounter.

Cassini will spend its final close flyby scanning Titan's methane lakes, focusing in particular on the "magic island" feature that has changed shape over the course of multiple observations.

The mission's scientists aim to know and examine Saturn's internal structure and the origins of the rings.

By destroying the spacecraft, NASA will ensure that any hitchhiking Earth microbes still alive on Cassini will not contaminate the moons for future study. After 13 years of operations, Cassini is low on fuel, and NASA doesn't want to risk an accidental collision with the potentially habitable worlds of Enceladus and Titan.

The thrilling finale will help NASA scientists to further understand how giant planets as well as planetary systems form and evolve.

"And those six months are the thrilling final chapter in a historic 20-year journey". JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter. Titan is considered a leading candidate for harboring native extraterrestrial life thanks to its thick atmosphere, organic-rich chemistry, and large oceans of liquid water hidden beneath its frozen surface. Cassini will then repeat this dive 22 more times-or about once per week-before finally falling into Saturn on September 15. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

The US space agency (Nasa) is calling an end to 12 years of exploration and discovery at Saturn because the probe's propellant tanks are all but empty.

Before that happens, however, the spacecraft will navigate between Saturn and its inner-most rings, snapping photos all the way down and giving us a new look at an alien world not all that far from home.