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This view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft was obtained about half a day
before its first close pass by the outer edges of Saturn's main rings
during its penultimate mission phase. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science
Institute.› Full image and caption
This collage of
images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows Saturn's northern
hemisphere and rings as viewed with four different spectral filters.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.› Full image and caption
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has sent to Earth its first views of
Saturn's atmosphere since beginning the latest phase of its mission. The
new images show scenes from high above Saturn's northern hemisphere,
including the planet's intriguing hexagon-shaped jet stream.
Cassini began its new mission phase, called its Ring-Grazing Orbits,
on Nov. 30. Each of these weeklong orbits -- 20 in all -- carries the
spacecraft high above Saturn's northern hemisphere before sending it
skimming past the outer edges of the planet's main rings.
Cassini's imaging cameras acquired these latest views on Dec. 2 and
3, about two days before the first ring-grazing approach to the planet.
Future passes will include images from near closest approach, including
some of the closest-ever views of the outer rings and small moons that
"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," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at
Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado.
The next pass by the rings' outer edges is planned for Dec. 11. The
ring-grazing orbits will continue until April 22, when the last close
flyby of Saturn's moon Titan will once again reshape Cassini's flight
path. With that encounter, Cassini will begin its Grand Finale, leaping
over the rings and making the first of 22 plunges through the
1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its innermost
ring on April 26.
On Sept. 15, the mission's planned conclusion will be a final dive
into Saturn's atmosphere. During its plunge, Cassini will transmit data
about the atmosphere's composition until its signal is lost.
Launched in 1997, Cassini has been touring the Saturn system since
arriving in 2004 for an up-close study of the planet, its rings and
moons. Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a
global ocean with indications of hydrothermal activity within the moon
Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on another moon, Titan.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA
(European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet
Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the
mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL
designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.