In 1997, NASA launched a spacecraft to Saturn. This intrepid explorer called Cassini, spent the better part of 13 years orbiting Saturn and studying it and the planet’s many moons. Not only did Cassini discover new small moons around Saturn, but it found geysers of water shooting out from a small moon called Enceladus. Cassini also found odd-shaped storms in Saturn’s atmosphere, and material like carbon, methane, ethane, and nitrogen in the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
As time passed, the team realized the spacecraft was running low on fuel and decided its last year in orbit around Saturn would be a doozy. They knew the craft would crash into the planet at the end anyway, so the team took risks, sending Cassini swooping through the rings of Saturn, flying out by the moons and speeding back in. These grand finale orbits made for some spectacular photos. In honor of this remarkable mission, we are all going to break quarantine and go to Saturn.
Saturn’s giant eye is actually a massive storm. It’s a vast 1,240 miles across with wind speeds of 330 miles per hour. Cassini captured the storm in April 2014 from a distance of 1.4 million miles away.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Looking down from a great height of one million miles, this view of Saturn’s north pole reveals its hexagon-shaped storm and different windy bands. Saturn’s rings sneak into the photo, too.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Gas giants are called giants for a reason. This photo shows just a sliver of Saturn and its size compared to the tiny moon Dione. This image shows not only how thin Saturn’s rings are when seen edge-on, but if you peek toward the bottom you will see a shadow cast by the rings onto the atmosphere.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
In this deep dive, Cassini provided a breathtaking view from below Saturn’s rings. The sunlight cast onto the rings creates a shadow on the surface giving the impression a human really framed this photo, but that’s not all. If you look really closely at the bottom of the planet you will see another shadow, a circular little dot, that’s the moon called Mimas.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
There’s not just one planet in this photo, but two. If you peer through Saturn’s thin, icy rings you will see a bright dot, that’s Venus shining from the inner solar system.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Saturn’s rings are made of mostly small bits of ice and because of their composition they reflect a lot of light. This means in order to capture them, Cassini’s camera has to be able to expose for the brightness, leaving out a lot of starlight in the background. However, two moons managed to just squeeze into this photo–the larger moon to the upper left is Dione and if you squint just right, above the rings you’ll find Epimetheus as a small speck.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
On September 15, 2017, Cassini’s mission ended. It had received commands from NASA to plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere where it would break apart. However, right before it said goodbye, it took one last photo, this one. This is the closest any spacecraft has ever been to the planet: We see the rings below and the atmosphere head on. This is Cassini’s final photo and final resting place.Photograph: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
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