NASA has released images showing Saturn's enormous hexagonal north polar jet stream. The jet stream is large enough to swallow two Earth-sized planets laid either side of the dark, central polar storm. The images were captured by the agency's Cassini orbiter prior to making the first of 20 close proximity flybys of the gas giant's iconic ring system.
The image above offers a detailed view of a region in Saturn's northern hemisphere, as captured by Cassini while orbiting some 240,000 miles (390,000 km) above the surface of the gas giant. The image has a scale of 14 miles (23 km) per pixel, and was captured by the probe's wide-angle camera approximately half a day prior to diving through Saturn's ring-plane.
The dark eye of Saturn's northern polar storm dominates the top left portion of the image, while smaller storms can be seen embedded in the surrounding maelstrom of the hexagon-shaped jet stream.
The remainder of the release is comprised of a collage of four separate images (below) covering a larger area of Saturn's northern hemisphere, alongside a section of its rings. The images were captured on December 2 and 3 at a distance of roughly 400,000 miles (640,000 km) from Saturn's surface.
Each of the images was taken using a different spectral filter sensitive to a different wavelengths of light. These filters help scientists to reveal clouds and hazes on Saturn that exist at different altitudes. Clockwise from the top-left, the filters are sensitive to violet, red, near-infrared and infrared light.
For future dives, Cassini's cameras will be snapping images of Saturn and its rings close to the point of passing through the ring-plane. The spacecraft is also set to capture the highest resolution views to date of a number of Saturn's smaller moons, including Atlas, Daphnis, Pan and Pandora.
"This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado. "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.