After 20 years of traveling through space, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is taking a close look at Saturn before plunging into the planet in September 2017. And it’s finally sending us some of its first pictures back.
The final stretch of Cassini’s mission will allow us to learn more about the particles and gas molecules that linger near Saturn’s rings. Cassini began its new mission phase on November 30th, which NASA calls Ring-Grazing Orbits. Twenty of these weeklong orbits will take Cassini high above Saturn’s northern hemisphere and then past the edges of the planet’s main rings. That’s where Saturn’s small moons orbit.
"This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn,” Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement. “Let these images — and those to come — remind you that we’ve lived a bold and daring adventure around the solar system’s most magnificent planet."
Here are some of the photos Cassini sent us through space.
This image was taken with the Cassini wide-angle camera on December 3rd, 2016, about half a day before its first close pass by the outer edges of Saturn's main rings. It shows the planet’s North Pole, where there’s a storm and a giant, hexagon-shaped jet stream. Each side of the hexagon is about as wide as Earth, NASA says.
This collage of images, taken on December 2nd, 2016, shows the planet’s northern hemisphere and rings. Each photo has a different filter, sensitive to different wavelengths of light. They show clouds and hazes at different altitudes.
This photo, taken on December 4th, 2016, shows Tethys, Saturn's fifth largest moon and its heavily scarred surface. Its biggest impact crater, called Odysseus Crater, is 250 miles in diameter — that’s roughly two-fifths of the moon itself.