Cassini spacecraft has been touring around Saturn for 12 years. And now it has sent to Earth its first views of Saturn’s atmosphere, including the planet’s intriguing hexagon-shaped jet stream, according to the statement.
Cassini began its new mission phase, called its Ring-Grazing Orbits, on November 30. Each of these weeklong orbits — 20 in all — carries the spacecraft high above Saturn’s northern hemisphere before sending it skimming past the outer edges of the planet’s main rings.
The photos were made on December 2 and 3, about two days before the first ring-grazing approach to the planet. Future passes will include images from near closest approach, including some of the closest-ever views of the outer rings and small moons that orbit there.
“This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn. 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,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado.
The next pass by the rings’ outer edges is planned for Dec. 11.
The ring-grazing orbits will continue until April 22, when the last close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan will reshape Cassini’s flight path.
On April 26, Cassini will leap over the rings, making the first of 22 plunges through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its innermost ring.
On Sept. 15, the mission will conclude with a final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere. During the plunge, Cassini will transmit data on the atmosphere’s composition and then it will burn like a meteor.