Spacecraft gets up close and personal with Saturn’s rings

31 Jan 20178 Shares

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someone

Image: Dima Zel/Shutterstock

Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on RedditEmail this to someone

NASA’s investigation into Saturn, it’s rings and everything in between has thrown up a series of stunning images from its Cassini spacecraft.

Cassini is currently in the middle of one of NASA’s most interesting missions: diving through Saturn’s many rings on 20 occasions to measure their make-up.

Saturn Rings

When this ends in April, Cassini will then dive below the rings, taking 22 trips between them and the planet’s surface, providing scientists with the best-ever look at what the planet’s surface is really like.

Then it will crash into Saturn, providing one final tranche of scientific readings, hopefully building a portfolio of  information to allow NASA researchers to fully understand the planet’s atmosphere.

With the first stage well underway, images of Saturn’s dazzling rings of icy debris are emerging, and January’s haul is particularly fascinating.

This image features a ‘density wave’ in Saturn’s A ring (at left) that lies around 134,500 km from Saturn. These waves are filled with clumpy perturbations, which researchers informally refer to as straw. This wave is created by the gravity of the moons Janus and Epimetheus, which share the same orbit around Saturn. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This image features a ‘density wave’ in Saturn’s A ring (left) that lies around 134,500km from Saturn. These waves are filled with clumpy perturbations, which researchers informally refer to as straw. This wave is created by the gravity of the moons Janus and Epimetheus, which share the same orbit around Saturn. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This shows a region in Saturn’s A ring. The view contains many small, bright blemishes due to cosmic rays and charged particle radiation near the planet. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This shows a region in Saturn’s A ring. The view contains many small, bright blemishes due to cosmic rays and charged particle radiation near the planet. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The current leg of Cassini’s mission sees it shooting in and out of the outer edges of the rings every week, with several images already delivered during earlier dives.

https://gyazo.com/fa5f17f3e8a0353c467b5b28ce99c41d

Some of the structures seen in recent Cassini images have not been visible at this level of detail since the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in mid-2004.

At that time, fine details like straw and propellers – which are caused by clumping ring particles and small, embedded moonlets, respectively – had never been seen before.

This shows a region in Saturn’s outer B ring. This image is in twice the level of detail as it had ever been observed before. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This shows a region in Saturn’s outer B ring. This image gives twice the level of detail that had ever been observed before. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This is again showing a region in B ring. From this view, it is clear that there are still finer details to uncover. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This is again showing a region in B ring. From this view, it is clear that there are still finer details to uncover. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“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 the details are in this new collection,” said Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute.

“How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn’s rings we’ve ever collected.”

Gordon Hunt is a journalist at Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com