Cassini snaps lovely photo of Earth before final 'death dive'

Cassini snaps a familiar object between Saturn's 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.

NASA plans to crash the spacecraft into Saturn to avoid any chance Cassini could someday collide with Titan, the ocean-bearing moon Enceladus or any other moon that has the potential to support indigenous microbial life. Cassini zoomed past Venus and explored Jupiter before entering into orbit around the gas giant Saturn, the first spacecraft to do so.

The spacecraft made its 127th close brush with Titan on April 21 just a little past 11:00 p.m. PDT when it passed at 608 miles above the lunar surface and sent back to Earth images and other data of its last encounter with the moon.

The mission will conclude with a science-rich plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15 this year.

"With this flyby we're committed to the Grand Finale", Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL, said in a press release.

The close encounter with Titan increased Cassini's velocity to about 1,925 miles per hour. This point, called apoapse, is where each new Cassini lap around Saturn begins.

Cassini's first finale dive will take place on April 26 at 2 a.m. PDT (5 a.m. EDT).

Cassini will be out of contact during the dive, but will make radio contact with Earth the next day, when scientists expect the images and data to start coming in.

A new narrated, 360-degree animated video gives viewers a sense of what it might be like to fly alongside Cassini as it makes one of its Grand Finale dives. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

If all goes well, Cassini will repeat that orbit on a weekly basis until September 15, collecting samples of Saturn's atmosphere and measuring its mass and weight in the process, according to The Verge.

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