After a mission that has lasted close to two decades, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will soon make its final orbit of Saturn, a planet whose secrets it has been gradually unlocking ever since it arrived in orbit there back in 2004. Before Cassini makes its explosive final dive into Saturn’s atmosphere, the impressive orbiter is busy making a series of orbits to gather data on the planet’s iconic ring system. These ‘ring-grazing’ movements see the spacecraft thread its way through the gaps in Saturn’s rings, giving it a chance to take the most detailed images of these celestial icons ever captured.
Saturn’s rings have been captivating stargazers ever since the likes of Galileo Galilei and Christiaan Huygens first observed them, in varying levels of detail, all the way back in the 17th century. Now, hundreds of years later, the team behind the Cassini spacecraft are understandably excited about what these images mean for our future knowledge of the rings.
“As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images — which remained our most detailed views of the rings for the past 13 years — I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection,” said the Cassini Team’s Carolyn Porco, of Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn’s rings we’ve ever collected.”
The images provide detail twice as high as any previous shots of Saturns rings, allowing researchers to witness waves and ripples in the formations caused by the passing of Saturn’s moons.
Cassini will be exploring Saturn and its rings for another 8 months, at which point it will dive into the planet’s atmosphere in a fittingly brilliant finale. This finale isn’t just for giggles, though. As it makes its way planetside, Cassini will make a detailed map of Saturn’s gravitational and magnetic fields, take up-close images of its clouds, and potentially answer just how quickly the planet’s interior is rotating.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute