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Titan's gravity will bend Cassini's orbit around Saturn during the April 21 flyby and will shrink it slightly so that instead of passing through just outside the rings, the probe will also begin its finale dives which pass just inside the rings. Cassini will fly to within 979km of Titan's surface on Friday, before beginning a series of plunges between the planet and its innermost ring, a gap of just 2,400km.

Cassini will become a brilliant fireball streaking over Saturn's cloud tops on the last day of its operation on September 15.

Earth and the moon as seen through the rings of Saturn on April 12, 2017. Although far too small to be visible in the image, the part of Earth facing toward Cassini at the time was the southern Atlantic Ocean. The planet is thoroughly studied by NASA's Cassini spacecraft since its arrival in 2004.

We have to enjoy these new Cassini images while we can.

Meanwhile, Cassini, the nuclear-powered spacecraft that snapped the above photo, is preparing for its final days in space after 20 years of exploration.

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But after a decades-long Saturnian sojourn, the spacecraft is running out of fuel - so on April 23rd, it will embark on its Grand Finale mission before plunging into Saturn's atmosphere on September 15th.

"I wouldn't be a bit surprised if some of the discoveries we make with Cassini might be the very best of the mission", said Linda Spilker, the mission's project scientist.

There's no turning back once Cassini flies past Titan, Maize said. The moon has yielded so many discoveries. The concern is whether computer models of Saturn's rings are accurate. The probe will plunge beneath the rings and through the gap separating Saturn from its innermost ring.

One reason scientists want to make sure Cassini is incinerated at the end of its journey is to ensure that any of its earthborn microbes do not contaminate the biotic or prebiotic worlds out there. "We discovered that Europa's plume candidate is sitting right on the thermal anomaly", says William Sparks of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. They could also help us understand how planets form around other stars. The spacecraft's particle detectors will sample the icy ring particles being channeled into the atmosphere by Saturn's magnetic field.

Before that, however, it will undertake its most risky manoeuvres yet - diving 22 times inside the planet's rings.


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