NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which recently began its new ring-grazing mission, has beamed back stunning pictures of Saturn from its new orbit in the first phase. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been at Saturn since 2004. On November 30, it began the new mission phase – Ring-Grazing Orbits.
At the new orbit, Cassini spacecraft will study in unprecedented detail the Saturn rings, which are spread up to 282,000 kilometres from the planet. The rings range in size from small grains to big mountains.
Scenes from high above Saturn's northern hemisphere can be seen in the new pictures, that also reveal the planet’s intriguing hexagon-shaped jet stream.
The 20 weeklong orbits carries Cassini high above Saturn's northern hemisphere. The spacecraft will then be sent skimming past the outer edges of the main rings of Saturn.
The latest pictures were clicked by Cassini’s imaging cameras on December 2 and December3. The Cassini will in future beam back images from near closest approach. The upcoming pictures will reveal some closest-ever views of the outer rings and small moons.
"This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn. 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," Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado, said.
The next pass by will take place on December 11, while the ring-grazing orbits mission will continue till April 22. The close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan will again reshape the flight path of Cassini then.
On April 26, the Grand Finale of Cassini will start when it will leap over the Saturn rings and make the first of 22 plunges through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between the planet and its innermost ring.
The mission will conclude on September 15 with a final drive into the atmosphere of Saturn. Cassini will release data about the atmosphere's composition during its plunge until its signal is lost.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and ever since it arrived in 2004 at Saturn, it has made numerous discoveries.