NASA image captures Earth between the rings of Saturn

Posted April 23, 2017

In a new photo, the craft offers a unique view of Earth - a view from between Saturn's icy rings.

When we look up and see planets from Earth, they appear as pinpoints of light.

The Cassini spacecraft was launched in October 1997 and began exploring the Saturnian system in July 2004. NASA's official website says the image shows the southern Atlantic Ocean of Earth, but it's impossible to see it clearly because of the distance.

The image will be the last time that Earth is viewed from Saturn, with Cassini now embarking on its final stages of its mission which will se the ship plunge to its death.

Early Saturday, Cassini will swing past Saturn's mega moon Titan.

"It really represents a capstone finding for the mission", said Cassini's project scientist, Linda Spilker, noting that the spacecraft has been circling Saturn for more than a decade.

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Mission scientists know that as Cassini passes through the 1,500-mile-wide gap, it could collide with the rocks that make up the rings. Its European traveling companion, Huygens, landed on Titan in 2005.

Space probe Cassini will bravely go where no spacecraft has gone before - bringing an end to its incredible 20-year-mission.

"We could put it into a very long orbit far from Saturn but the science return from that would be nowhere near as good as what we're about to do", he told BBC News.

In the years that it has been studying the Saturnian system, the probe has flown by the haze-shrouded world on 126 occasions - each time getting a kick that bends its path towards a new region of interest. The spacecraft will duck through the gap between Saturn and its rings 22 times before spiraling out of control and vaporizing in the sky above Saturn this September.

From a navigation standpoint, "this is an easy shot", Maize said. On a few of the crossings, Cassini is "kind of flirting with the edge of where we think it's safe", he noted. They want to have the first-ever sampling of the atmosphere of Saturn and the particles that come from the main rings. On each orbit, the probe will draw closer and closer to the butterscotch ball of Saturn until it finally tears across the cloud tops and burns up as a spectacular fireball on September 15. Unfortunately, these lakes and oceans aren't made of water but methane and ethane, which exist as gases on Earth, but are cooled into liquids on Titan.