NASA's Cassini orbiter has sent home its last pictures of Saturn's moon Dione — and they're incredible.
The Cassini orbiter, which has been studying Saturn and its moons since 2004, won't make another close pass of this icy world before the 2017 end of its mission.
Dione — just one of Saturn's 62 moons — is shown from just 295 miles away in these photos, taken Aug. 17.
"I am moved, as I know everyone else is, looking at these exquisite images of Dione's surface and crescent, and knowing that they are the last we will see of this far-off world for a very long time to come," Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute, said in a statement. "Right down to the last, Cassini has faithfully delivered another extraordinary set of riches. How lucky we have been."
The actual purpose of this final flyby was to collect data on Dione's gravity — not to take pictures of it. Because the camera couldn't dictate the spacecraft's position, mission scientists felt especially lucky to be able to catch a few final glimpses.
In addition to making much more distant flybys of Saturn's larger moons and getting looks at some of its smallest, irregular satellites, Cassini will also make a shockingly close pass by Enceladus, a moon that appears to be geologically active. In December, the spacecraft will come within just 30 miles of its surface.
And in 2017, Cassini will have what its team is calling a "grand finale": The spacecraft will dive repeatedly into the space between Saturn and its rings.