Cassini spacecraft reveals our closest ever images of Saturn

28 Apr 2017

Illustration of Saturn. Image: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock

As its mission comes to an end, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed incredible images of Saturn, the closest we have ever seen.

For the next five months, the Cassini spacecraft will begin a slow descent into the planet it has been studying for the past 13 years, in what should prove an explosive end.

During this time, Cassini will dive beneath the lowest of Saturn’s many rings up to 22 times, collecting information from close to the planet’s surface for the first time ever.

Through these undulating dives, the spacecraft will, hopefully, gain powerful insights into Saturn’s internal structure and the origins of the rings.

Now, in its earliest of descents, the spacecraft has returned perhaps some of its greatest ever images – ones that show Saturn in a whole new light.

As it dove through the gap between the planet and its rings, Cassini came within about 3,000km of the Saturn’s cloud tops, and within about 300km of the innermost visible edge of the rings.

The never-before explored region of the planet was believed to contain tiny ring particles similar to smoke, which – with the spacecraft travelling at speeds of 124,000kph – might have caused damage.

However, Cassini used its large, dish-shaped, high-gain antenna as a shield, which was aligned in the direction of the oncoming ring particles.

Saturn 1

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn 2

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn 3

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

What we’ve learned

The result was three unprocessed images of Saturn, revealing our closest ever look at the planet.

“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions – based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings – of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,” said Cassini project manager Earl Maize.

“I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape.”

Aside from taking some incredible pictures, data obtained from Cassini’s slow demise will be used for future spacecraft that will plunge through Saturn’s atmosphere.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic