After more than twelve years in orbit around Saturn, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is now in its final year of operation…and newly-positioned in an orbit that will send it soaring high over the planet’s north pole as well as close by the outer edge of its glorious shining rings.
Over the course of 20 week-long “ring-grazing orbits” — the first of which was completed on Dec. 4 — Cassini will obtain close-up images and data on the composition and structure of Saturn’s rings and nearby shepherd moons.
It’s the mission’s penultimate phase, heralding the end of Cassini in September 2017.
“This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn,” said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco. “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.”
Round and round they go… the animation above, made from 14 raw images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on August 23, 2016, shows the moons Prometheus and Atlas orbiting Saturn within the Roche Division gap between its A (top right) and F (center) rings. The gravitational tug of Prometheus (92 miles / 148 km long) is strong enough to pull on the fine, smoke-like icy particles of the F ring, creating streamer and “clump” features that follow it along.
The much smaller Atlas (23 miles / 37 km wide) follows a path around Saturn just past the outer edge of the A ring. It was once thought to be a “shepherd moon” of the A ring, but it’s now known that the pull of the more distant Janus and Epimetheus are responsible for that.
Atlas does have its very own ring, though—a very faint (i.e., not visible above) band of material that runs along its orbit named R/2004 S 1, discovered by the Cassini mission in July 2004.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by Jason Major.
On August 2, 1971, at the end of the last EVA of the Apollo 15 mission, Commander David Scott took a few minutes to conduct a classic science experiment in front of the TV camera that had been set up just outside the LM Falcon at the Hadley Rille landing site. Scott, a former Air Force pilot, recreated a famous demonstration often attributed to Galileo (which may or may not have actually been performed by the astronomer in Pisa in 1586) that shows how objects of different masses react the same way to gravity when dropped – that is, they fall at the same rate.
By performing the “acceleration test” in the vacuum environment of space (but where there is still an observable downward pull of gravity) the Earthly factor of air resistance is negated – especially on such a low-mass and low-density object as a falcon feather – thereby creating a more “pristine” setting for the centuries-old experiment than could ever be achieved here.