Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits are finally delivering the goods. This week, NASA released the first close-up images of Saturn’s outer rings captured during the ring-grazing phase of the probe’s mission.
Cassini’s images feature details as small as 1,500 feet. Some of these features already have names — like “straw” and “propellers.” The term straw refers to tiny, clumpy patterns seen in the larger bands, or density waves, of Saturn’s rings.
The probe’s path puts it within a few hundred miles of the gas giant’s outer rings, and just 57,000 miles from Saturn’s cloud tops. Cassini has now halfway through its ring-grazing phase, which will feature a total of 22 orbits and continue through April.
“These close views represent the opening of an entirely new window onto Saturn’s rings, and over the next few months we look forward to even more exciting data as we train our cameras on other parts of the rings closer to the planet,” Matthew Tiscareno, Cassini mission scientist, said in a news release.
In late April, the probe will embark on the final phase of its mission. The probe will plunge beneath the rings and through the gap separating Saturn from its innermost ring, making one last dive before disappearing into Saturn’s atmosphere.
In the coming months, Cassini will continue to image Saturn’s rings and inner moons in unprecedented detail. The probe will also collect and analyze cosmic samples, revealing the composition of Saturn’s rings and atmosphere.
“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,” concluded Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Team. “How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn’s rings we’ve ever collected.”
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