NASA Shows Off Close-Up Images Of Saturn’s Rings — First-Ever Views Come Via Doomed Cassini Shuttle

NASA has posted its closest pictures ever of the famed rings of Saturn.

These distant images, which are nearly 20 years in the making, were transmitted by the space agency’s unmanned Cassini vessel. Cassini left Earth in 1997 to make the 746 million mile (1.2 billion kilometer) trip between the planets.

Saturn Depiction
How Saturn and its famous rings appear close-up has long been the subject of curiosity in the scientific community. This artist's depiction of the planet, for example, was created in 1977. [Image by NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It has been conducting research on Saturn and its rings since 2004.

As the Inquisitr documented several weeks back, Cassini had been preparing to pass closely by the sixth planet’s primary rings as part of its “penultimate mission phase,” which kicked off in late November. This shuttle mission is being regarded as a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency.

These images, which were made available via a NASA press release, were taken on December 2 and 3 from the shuttle’s view of Saturn’s northern hemisphere, located relatively close to Saturn’s famous “main” rings.

They also, per NASA’s interpretation, illustrate “[Saturn’s] intriguing hexagon shaped jet stream.”

The series of groundbreaking photos of Saturn’s rings were viewed using one of four spectral filters, which the space agency noted are designed to provide varying levels of sensitivity. In particular, the photographs show previously unseen views of the rings’ light wavelengths, clouds, gas particles, and hazes from a variety of in-space altitudes.

“This is… the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn,” said Cassini’s imaging team leader Carolyn Porco, per NASA. This group is located at NASA’s Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“We’ve lived in a bold and daring adventure around the solar system’s most magnificent planet,” the SSI head continued. “Let these [Saturn rings] images — and those [pictures] yet to come — remind you.”

Carolyn Porco
Carolyn Porco was one of a number of scientists to bask in the glow of NASA's magnificent images of Saturn and its rings. [Image by Paul Morigi/Getty Images]

For its own part, Cassini has had a remarkably long journey to get to this point. Despite the 19-year travel time, however, Cassini’s mission is, at this point, very close to its most important phase.

Cassini now, NASA noted, finds itself “skimming past the outer edge of [Saturn’s] main rings” to provide the first ever up close and personal shots of the planet’s outer rings and neighboring, smaller moons.

A 3D map, documenting Cassini’s orbit, has also been provided by NASA.

The vessel’s current phase around Saturn’s main rings is estimated to last approximately one week, and the ship’s mission has 19 other phases before its ultimate sendoff next year.

The next phase of Saturn’s ring photos from Cassini are planned for December 11.

To date, some of Cassini’s previously unknown discoveries since nearing Saturn and its rings in 2004 have been its uncovering of:

  • a giant ocean on the planet;
  • evidence of hydro-thermal activity within Saturn’s Enceladus moon;
  • and a liquid methane waterway on Saturn’s Titan moon.

Prior to its “Viking funeral” of sorts next September, NASA’s Cassini still has a lot of ground to cover. In April, 2017, for example, Cassini will get closer to the Titan moon than has ever been documented.

That visit to Saturn’s well-known moon is far from the main event.

Shortly after that visit, NASA’s Cassini is scheduled to “begin its Grand Finale, leaping over the rings and making the first of 22 plunges through the 1,500 mile-wide (2,400 kilometer) gap between Saturn and its innermost ring.”

NASA’s ultimate mission is to enter the atmosphere of the mysterious planet Saturn.

Scheduled for September 15, 2017, NASA’s Cassini ship will plunge itself as deep as possible into Saturn’s atmosphere, documenting this descent back to NASA’s scientists back on Earth and taking and transmitting as many pictures of Saturn as is possible before Cassini’s signal is forever lost.

Presumably, Cassini will then plunge to the planet’s surface in its final act of heroism, thus ending its brave, 20-year mission.

And those pictures, NASA’s researchers believe, could potentially be among the most visually stunning images ever taken from outer space.

[Featured Image by NASA/Getty Images]