Like those fractal designs that were so popular in the ’90s Saturn’s rings reveal finer and finer structures the nearer Cassini gets, now in the final year of its mission. Recent images from the spacecraft, captured in December 2016, show groove-like density waves and skyscraper-sized clumps within the planet’s icy rings—and it’s just a hint at what we’ll be seeing over the next several months as Cassini passes closer and closer.
“These close views represent the opening of an entirely new window onto Saturn’s rings, and over the next few months we look forward to even more exciting data as we train our cameras on other parts of the rings closer to the planet,” said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini scientist who studies Saturn’s rings at the SETI Institute.
Read the rest of this story from NASA here: Close Views Show Saturn’s Rings in Unprecedented Detail
Hello, Daphnis! On January 16, 2017, the Cassini spacecraft captured the best photo yet of Daphnis, a 5-mile-wide shepherd moon that orbits Saturn inside the Keeler Gap at the outermost edge of the A ring (and also just so happens to be my personal favorite moon of Saturn!) The raw image arrived on Earth today, and it’s just beautiful.
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.”
The distant ice giant Uranus may not have been visited by a spacecraft since Voyager 2’s “Grand Tour” flyby in 1986 but the data gathered then is still being used today to make new discoveries. Most recently, researchers think they have found evidence of two previously unknown moons around Uranus, potentially bringing the planet’s count up to 29.
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.
The lines of Saturn’s rings appear to get sharply bent as their reflected light passes through the upper atmosphere of the planet before being captured by Cassini’s camera in this raw image, acquired on June 9, 2016.
Enormous Saturn of course is, by volume, nearly all atmosphere with a solid core only about the size of Earth. The bands of tans, blues, purples and pale greens we see in Cassini images are just the tops of clouds, and even more transparent layers of atmosphere exist above those, gradually fading out into space. Like what astronauts see from orbit when the Moon passes behind these upper layers, getting squished in the process, Saturn’s rings appear to be distorted by the same refractive process for Cassini. It’s literally an optical illusion, as obviously the rings aren’t changing shape at all!
The image above has been cropped and rotated for artistic effect; see the original raw image here.