Cassini Has Made Earth Feel Small, But Part of Something Bigger

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That image shows Earth as a tiny fleck on a beam of sunlight from more than 4 billion miles away.

The image was taken from the spacecraft on April 12, when Cassini was approximately 870 million miles from Earth. At the time the photo was taken, the southern Atlantic Ocean was facing the spacecraft's lens, NASA officials said in a statement.

It then added: "Zoom into Cassini's last view of Earth and you can also see the moon - a smaller, fainter dot to the left".

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The most risky days yet have started for the Cassini-Huygens American-European space probe that was launched from Earth to study ringed Saturn, the sixth major planet from the Sun, nearly 20 years ago. Twenty-two transits are planned until September, when Cassini goes in and never comes out, vaporising in Saturn's atmosphere.

This five-month-long farewell tour is perhaps the most dramatic and heart-wrenching of Cassini's missions.

Cassini has been hunting for signs of life on Saturn's moon and recently discovered that all the conditions for life to thrive exist in the oceans of Enceladus. Grand finale is a set of final 22 plunges during which the spacecraft will repeatedly dive through the narrow gaps between the Saturn and its rings. During this time, Titan's gravity will pull Cassini and end its orbit enough to change its course from the outer ring to the inner rings.

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Because Saturn's moons Titan and Enceladus might be habitable, the probe will be flown into Saturn's atmosphere to avoid any possible contamination of these moons with bacteria from Earth that might have somehow survived on the spacecraft.

The mission, which is about to end some time this year, has definitely been a fruitful one, owing to all the wonderfully insightful information scientists have managed to glean from it. What we learn from these final orbits will help to improve our understanding of how giant planets - and planetary systems everywhere - form and evolve. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

The American space agency released the photos as Cassini nears the dramatic grand finale of its mission. Saturn's A and F rings frame the picture, with Earth in the middle, ready for its (not so) close up.

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Launched in 1997, Cassini arrived in the vicinity of Saturn in 2004.

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