25 April, 2017
NASA Cassini spacecraft is about to embark on the most crucial part of its mission, the grand finale "death dive" where it will plunge to its demise, but not before beaming to Earth some fantastic photographs of our home planet taken from space.
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. The even smaller point of light is visible to the left of the Earth in the image.
Before the mission finally comes to an end, Cassini will make a last, distant flyby of Titan on September 11, a maneuver that will ensure the spacecraft doesn't crash into Enceladus, an ocean-moon of Saturn that is potentially habitable.
The planned imaging coverage includes a region previously seen by Cassini's imaging cameras, but not by radar.
NASA said the Cassini mission to Saturn is "one of the most ambitious efforts in planetary space exploration ever mounted".
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The gravity from Titan bent Cassini's path and set Cassini up for the Grand Finale: instead of simply flying by Saturn's ring, on April 26 the spacecraft will start a series of 22 dives between the rings and will plunge into Saturn's atmosphere right on schedule on September 15.
Some key numbers for Cassini's Grand Finale and final plunge into Saturn.
"I think it is too early to eulogize Cassini on the occasion of its death, as incineration is five months away", Jonathan Lunine, director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science and a longtime member of the Cassini mission team, told USA Today. The Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker said that the grand finale of Cassini-Huygens is just another brand new mission because the space probe will show the biggest discoveries on its final orbit.
The close encounter with Titan increased Cassini's velocity to about 1,925 miles per hour.
During this observation Cassini was looking toward the backlit rings, making a mosaic of multiple images, with the sun blocked by the disk of Saturn.