Cassini snaps a familiar object between Saturn's rings

NASA's Cassini spacecraft has had its last close brush with Saturn's hazy moon Titan and is now beginning its final set of 22 orbits around the ringed planet.

The last close flyby of Titan happened at 2:08 a.m. EDT Saturday, when Cassini was 979 kilometers (608 miles) above the moon's surface.

This view from NASA's Cassini orbiter shows Earth and its only natural satellite as points of light between the icy rings of the gas giant Saturn.

Cassini will go out in a blaze of glory on September 15, plunging into Saturn's atmosphere in a death dive created to ensure that the probe doesn't contaminate Titan or fellow Saturn satellite Enceladus with microbes from Earth. They will be looking into the images of Titan's hydrocarbon seas and lakes that spread across the moon's polar region.

"Cassini's up-close exploration of Titan is now behind us, but the rich volume of data the spacecraft has collected will fuel scientific study for decades to come", Linda Spilker, the mission's project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, said in a statement Monday.

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Cassini-Huygens will make its farewell tour on Saturn's system on April 22 and five months later will begin its "Grand Finale" by burning up into Saturn's crushing atmosphere on September 15, Space reported.

"15 no matter what", said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.

Cassini received a large increase in velocity of approximately 1,925 mph (precisely 860.5 meters per second) with respect to Saturn from the close encounter with Titan. This week, on April 26, Cassini will initiate its Grand Finale death dive composed of 22 plunges through the gap between Saturn's rings.

It's the beginning of the end for NASA's Cassini spacecraft. NASA officials also noted in a statement that the canyon had a maximum depth of almost 2.4 miles. Space.com noted that the canyon, known as Ithaca Chasma, is visible in an image from Cassini, teetering between the day side and night side of the moon. During its many years in space, the Cassini has sent back some spectacular photos, most recently a picture of Earth.

  • Douglas Reid