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Cassini beams back first images from new ring-grazing orbit

"This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn," said Cassini scientist Carolyn Porco.

By Brooks Hays
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Cassini beams back first images from new ring-grazing orbit
New images show Cassini's vantage just prior to its ring-grazing orbital plunge. Photo by Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

BOULDER, Colo., Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Cassini has relayed the first images captured during its initial ring-grazing orbit. The probe has reoriented its orbital path around Saturn's poles and will spend the next several months dipping within a few thousand miles of the gas giant's outer rings.

The latest images offer an elevated view of Saturn's northern hemisphere, and its hurricane-like hexagonal jet stream. The photos were taken on Dec. 2 and 3, prior to the probe's ring-grazing approach.

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The next batch of images will offer intimate views of Saturn's outer rings, as well as unprecedented vantages of small, inner moons -- including Pandora, Atlas, Pan and Daphnis. Future orbits will allow Cassini to capture the most detailed images yet of the A, B and F rings.

"This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn," Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute in Colorado, said in a news release. "Let these images -- and those to come -- remind you that we've lived a bold and daring adventure around the solar system's most magnificent planet."

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The new ring-grazing phase of Cassini's mission will last until April 22 and will include a total of 20 ring-grazing orbits. In the coming months, Cassini will collect and analyze cosmic samples as well as take photos.

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"We have two instruments that can sample particles and gases as we cross the ringplane, so in a sense Cassini is also 'grazing' on the rings," Linda Spilker, Cassini mission scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said last week.

Cassini is in the waning days of its scientific life. In late April, the probe will embark on its grand finale, the final phase of its mission. The probe will plunge beneath the rings and through the gap separating Saturn from its innermost ring.

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More images and atmospheric samples will be collected and analyzed over the course of 22 intimate orbits. On September 15, Cassini will make one final dive into Saturn's atmosphere.

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