NASA’s Cassini spacecraft may have since crash-landed into Saturn’s atmosphere, ending a two-decade mission that brought home a plethora of scientific findings, photos, and videos related to our solar system’s ringed planet. But the legacy of Cassini has continued to live on, as NASA released on Wednesday a photo of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, appearing half-lit with the planet’s rings in the background.
Contrary to some recent reports, the newly-released photo was not taken “shortly before” Cassini’s “grand finale,” but rather six years ago, well before the mission ended. A report from Space.com stated that the photo of Enceladus was taken on November 6, 2011 with the Cassini spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera, as the moon appeared in visible light from about 90,000 miles (145,000 kilometers) away. And while Saturn’s rings were evident in the images, there was also an extremely tiny white dot in the background, which NASA explained was a distant, unidentified star.
According to NASA’s official Enceladus page, scientists had long known that Enceladus was a brightly-shining, icy object, with an unknown relation to Saturn’s “E ring.” Thanks to the Cassini mission, the icy material in the E ring was found to come from vents connected to an underground saltwater ocean in Enceladus, where “geyser-like jets” release water vapor and ice particles. As the moon has a global ocean, internal heat, and an unusual atmospheric chemistry, Enceladus has also been considered as a “promising lead” in the continuing search for other planets and worlds that could potentially support life.
The Cassini spacecraft’s “grand finale” took place on September 15, 2017, right around the time the craft had used up its fuel after 13 years exploring Saturn and its moons. By diving into Saturn’s atmosphere and theoretically melting in mere minutes, as Newsweek described it, the event marked the end of an era for NASA, but not the last time the space agency would release findings and media from the historic mission.
As noted by the Daily Mail, the new photo of Saturn’s moon Enceladus is just one of several photos from the Cassini mission that were released after the “grand finale.” These include a series of “death shots” that were specifically taken by the Cassini spacecraft mere days before it crashed into Saturn. A NASA press release explained that these photos were taken by the craft’s wide-angle camera on September 13, 2017, and included images of Saturn, its rings, and some of its moons to provide “one last, lingering look” at the ringed planet through the eyes of Cassini.