Saturn image shows Earth from 870 million miles away

Posted April 23, 2017

We'll soon miss the steady stream of artistic images of Saturn, its rings and moons by the Cassini team. It's treacherous territory. Even a speck from the rings could cripple Cassini, given its velocity.

Dubbed the "grand finale" by boffins, Cassini will fly through the 1,500-mile gap between the gas giant and its rings of space dust.

The spacecraft is running out of fuel, and will be driven into the atmosphere of Saturn and burnt up on the 15 September 2017.

Cassini left the Earth in October of 1997, and reached Saturn in 2004, where it carried on its mission and garnered mounds upon mounds of information about Saturn and its moons including the possibility of Titan having electric sand, and returning the closest photos of Saturn's moon, Pan. Cassini's fuel tank is nearly empty, so NASA has opted for a risky, but science-rich grand finale.

There's no turning back once Cassini flies past Titan, Maize said. Kicking off with a final Titan flyby this weekend, the spacecraft will perform 22 weeks of dramatic dives into the never-explored region between the planet and the rings, beaming scientific data back to Earth throughout.

Saturn's rings were first discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610.

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Linda Spilker, a Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., cautioned against drawing any firm conclusions.

Scientists anticipate lots of lightweight impacts, since the spacecraft will be going through extremely small material, more like smoke than distinct particles. The probe will plunge beneath the rings and through the gap separating Saturn from its innermost ring.

Cassini will penetrate that formerly inviolate space not once but 22 times, about once a week until September 15, when it will crash into Saturn and be incinerated.

One reason scientists want to make sure Cassini is incinerated at the end of its journey is to ensure that any of its earthborn microbes do not contaminate the biotic or prebiotic worlds out there. New ocean world discoveries from Cassini and Hubble will help inform future exploration and the broader search for life beyond Earth.

"We sort of know; it's about 10.5 hours", said Prof Michele Dougherty, the Cassini magnetometer principal investigator from Imperial College, London, UK.

Cassini will now plunge to its ultimate end for the good of mankind as it begins a suicide descent towards Saturn. It's actually a relatively small planet, and humans - we're much smaller.