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US spacecraft to take slingshot dive inside Saturn's rings

29 April 2017
US spacecraft to take slingshot dive inside Saturn's rings

The Cassini mission to the Saturnian system is drawing to a close, but the spacecraft still had enough pluck to send a postcard back to its home planet featuring a image of Earth shot from between Saturn's rings. The first of the Grand Finale orbits begins on April 22 at 10:46 p.m. CDT.

Although it's not visible to the naked eye, NASA says the southern Atlantic Ocean was facing Saturn at the time.

Some of Saturn's rings are also visible in the new images, including the A ring (at top) with the Keeler and Encke gaps visible, and the F ring (at bottom). During this time, Titan's gravity will pull Cassini and end its orbit enough to change its course from the outer ring to the inner rings.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft will make a flyby of the moon Titan, which is one of the final orbits in its Grand Finale, on April 21, 2017.

While the spacecraft speeds by at 13,000 miles per hour (21,000 kph), its RADAR instrument will embark on its longest-duration observation of Titan's surface, searching for changes in its methane lakes and seas.

Opportunities to capture Earth from Saturn have been rare in the 13 years Cassini has spent orbiting the ringed planet.

Cassini's particle detectors will sample icy ring particles being funneled into the atmosphere by Saturn's magnetic field.

Cassini was launched in 1997 as a joint project by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) to study Saturn, the second largest planet of the Solar System, and its crowded family.

An enlarged image shows Earth as seen from the spacecraft Cassini. It has made many discoveries over its 20-year life.

We have to enjoy these new Cassini images while we can.

Earth shines between Saturn's rings. It will fly through the 2,400-kilometer-wide gap between Saturn and its rings 22 times before plunging into the planet's atmosphere and burning up on September 15.

Here we are if you zoom in just a little more.