A new image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows planet Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn.
The spacecraft captured the view on April 12, 2017, at 10:41 p.m. PDT (1:41 a.m. EDT on April 13). Cassini was 870 million miles (1.4 billion kilometers) away from Earth when the image was taken. Although far too small to be visible in the image, the part of Earth facing Cassini at the time was the southern Atlantic Ocean.
Earth's moon is also visible nearby in a cropped, zoomed-in version of the image.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.
NASA has dubbed this final series of maneuvers the grand finale. But in Spilker's view, it's more like the beginning of a new mission.
'Getting this close to the rings and the planet, that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a scientist like me,' she said. 'We've wanted to do this for a long time.'
In the past, mission planners have been hesitant to explore this part of the Saturn system because it was deemed too risky.
'We're going to be going 70,000 mph into a 1,200-mile gap – and oh, by the way, we'll be driving this thing from a billion miles away,' said Earl Maize, Cassini's project manager at JPL in La Canada Flintridge.
But it isn't the navigation that has NASA officials worried.
'Our concern is not accuracy, it's whether we modeled the system correctly,' Maize said.
At Cassini's high velocity, even a small piece of dust could take out one of its instruments. If a particle the size of a grain of sand struck it in the wrong spot, it could trip up the entire spacecraft.
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