NASA’s Cassini spacecraft took seven years to travel nearly 2.2 billion miles to reach Saturn. But once it got there in 2004, it started taking some breathtaking pictures of the planet, its rings, and many moons.
This Friday, after 13 years of orbiting Saturn and making groundbreaking discoveries, Cassini will take a plunge into the planet’s atmosphere, where incredibly high temperatures will melt and break apart the probe. The death dive has been planned for years as a way to protect some of Saturn’s moons, like Titan and Enceladus, which might harbor life. By destroying Cassini, NASA is making sure the spacecraft — and the Earth microbes that may have hitched a ride on it — aren’t going to contaminate those alien worlds.
In its final orbits, called the “Grand Finale,” Cassini has gotten closer to Saturn than ever before, taking even more mesmerizing photos of the planet and its rings. As we prepare to say goodbye to Cassini — an emotional time for the NASA team behind it — we put together some of our favorite photos snapped by the probe.
On August 12th, 2009, Cassini became the first probe to take photos up close of an equinox at Saturn, when the Sun’s disc was exactly overhead at the planet's equator. The photo above is actually a mosaic of several images taken over about eight hours. You can see Saturn through the colors and textures of the rings — and even get a glimpse of the rings popping out from the shadows.
This spinning hurricane on Saturn’s north pole is enormous: 1,250 miles across, with clouds swirling as fast as 330 miles per hour. This image was taken by Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on November 27th, 2012, one of the first ever sunlit views of Saturn's north pole. The colors do not reflect the storm’s actual hues (red indicates low clouds and green indicates high ones) — but nonetheless, NASA says the storm resembles a “deep red rose of giant proportions.” This is NASA being polite, maybe; it looks a bit more like the entrance to Dante's Inferno.
This view of clouds in Saturn's northern hemisphere is a composite of several images taken by Cassini's wide-angle camera on July 20th, 2016. The camera used filters sensitive to infrared light, which can pick up how sunlight is absorbed or scattered by methane in Saturn's atmosphere. The photo, which looks like a painting, also has the quality that the best paintings have: every time you look, something new catches your attention.
This view of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and its battered surface is a mosaic of 21 images taken during Cassini’s flybys on March 9th and July 14th, 2005. Thanks to Cassini, we now know that Enceladus has a subsurface ocean — and might host some sort of microbial life. Verge reporter Sean O’Kane has some thoughts on this photo:
Cassini is and should always be well-known for its soaring photos of Saturn. But my favorite Cassini images were its dispatches of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus especially. It might be because I grew up around snow, and can practically hear and feel the crunch that would come from my boots if I were afforded the chance to trudge around this icy moon (never mind the fact that the low gravity would make that feat extremely challenging).
Here’s a view of another one of Saturn’s moons, Titan — a world with lakes of methane on its surface. Titan is Saturn’s largest moon, and it’s bigger than the planet Mercury. In this composite image, snapped during a flyby on November 13th, 2015, Cassini allows us to peer through Titan’s haze and see parts of the moon’s surface. At the center, you can see the dark, dune-filled regions named Fensal and Aztlan, which form a horizontal "H." The world is so alien, it's nearly impossible to stop looking at it and wondering about it.
Don’t you just love it when planets turn psychedelic? This video, made of eight frames taken in 2012, is the highest-resolution view of the six-sided jet stream at Saturn's north pole, known as “the hexagon.” The center is a massive hurricane with an eye that’s about 50 times larger than the average hurricane eye on Earth. Those purplish ovals are vortices. The biggest one, in white below the hurricane’s eye, is about 2,200 miles across. It looks almost like something that would be projected on the wall of a disco, while people dance to it.
Saturn is famous for its rings, and here we can see them in the sunlight as the planet is in the dark. Saturn’s shadow is projected onto the rings, and some sunlight is reflected back onto the planet's night side. Despite being black and white, this photo’s composition captures your eyes and doesn’t let go. Saturn’s round, dark gray shape at the bottom right leads you to the blacker shadow to its left, and the blacker shadow leads you to the gray, white, and black rings.
In this composite photo taken by Cassini on May 6th, 2012, we can see Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, orbiting around its planet. This photo’s composition is enthralling: Saturn’s rings cut Titan right in the middle, slicing the photo in half. The image also shows Saturn’s natural color, giving us a truer look at this gas giant.
Take out the 3D glasses! Here’s a view of one Saturn’s innermost moons, Pan. This tiny moon (about 20 miles wide) has a bulging ring at its equator — giving it the shape of a walnut, ravioli, hand grenade, and much more. Verge science reporter Angela Chen says she likes the stereo effect on the photo. “And it’s interesting that this is a moon,” she says. “Obviously in my mind, moons are round.”
Look at us, we’re so small! In this photo taken by Cassini on July 19th, 2013, the probe snapped a rare picture of our planet from nearly 900 million miles away. If you magnify the photo, you can also see a tiny white dot next to us — our Moon. Looking at Earth from so far away is just a reminder of how small we are in the Universe. Verge science reporter Loren Grush also has some thoughts:
It's nothing short of incredible that a probe the size of a bus can snap its home that's hundreds of millions of miles away. This picture also has a great story, since people were invited to find Saturn and 'wave' at Cassini when the photo was being taken. So really this is a portrait of all of us.
It just seems proper than the last photo should be of Cassini’s launch on October 15th, 1997. The spacecraft launched at 4:43AM ET from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, beginning its seven-year journey to Saturn. If a photo isn’t enough for you, you can also see a video of the liftoff.
So long, Cassini! Thanks for 13 years of awesome photos — and data, too.