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. Cassini took the picture on April 12, when it was 870 million mi (1.4 billion k) away from Earth.
NASA released the photo yesterday. While it's impossible to tell from such a distance, the space agency says that the southern Atlantic Ocean was facing Saturn when the photo was snapped. In a more cropped version of the image, our Moon is visible to the left of our planet.
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The Cassini spacecraft was launched in October 1997 and began exploring the Saturnian system in July 2004. Now, because it's running out of fuel (provided by radioisotope thermoelectric generators), it will be deliberately sent down into the atmosphere of the gas giant where it will end operations.
Before that though, this weekend Cassini will take one more pass at Saturn's moon Titan, coming as close as 608 mi (979 k) above Titan's surface while traveling at about 13,000 mph (21,000 kph). It will use its radar instruments to piece the moon's haze to image its surface features and investigate the lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons found in the area of the moon's north pole.
While another pass at Titan (the craft's 127th) will provide more details about the moon, and perhaps even find its "magic island," the visit serves another purpose: The close proximity to Titan's gravity will warp Cassini's orbit slightly, bringing it from outside the planet's rings to just inside. It will complete 22 orbits in its new position before plunging into the gas giant – and into history – on September 15.
Source: NASAView gallery - 2 images