The science team responsible for NASA's Cassini spacecraft has released a gallery of the stand-out images from the probe's final hectic year exploring the Saturnian system. The collection shows off the majesty of the colossal gas giant, its iconic rings, and its impressively diverse and sometimes bizarre population of moons.
In 2017, Cassini undertook a set of 22 daring orbits that saw the spacecraft dive through the 1,500 mile (2,000 km)-wide gap separating Saturn's uppermost cloud layer and innermost rings. This new orbit allowed the probe to capture striking imagery and valuable scientific data.
Of course, the potential reward came with significant risk. No spacecraft had ever traveled through the ring/planet passage before Cassini, and the science team was unsure as to what could be expected in this mysterious region. It was possible that Cassini would be bombarded with potentially damaging fast-moving ring particles, and so for the first few dives, the probe was directed to use its high-gain antenna as a shield to guard against any potential impacts.
Thankfully, Cassini emerged unscathed, and was able to complete most of its dives without the need to use its antenna as a shield, allowing the probe's handlers to operate its suite of scientific instruments with complete freedom. Following the initial dives, it was discovered that the planet/ring divide had a surprisingly low population of particles, prompting the team to grant the region the moniker – the "big empty."
During close passes, Cassini was able to image vast swathes of Saturn's surface with astonishing clarity, and captured wide-angle views of the gas giant's vast, swirling polar storms from the high vantage point afforded by the spacecraft's eccentric orbit.
The Grand Finale provided an unprecedented opportunity to undertake a close-proximity study of Saturn's rings. The probe harvested a wealth of data on the gas giant's adornment, revealing numerous insights regarding their dynamics and nature. Cassini's cameras captured elegant waves in the ring material created by the passage of shepherd moons and subtler propeller-shaped disturbances in the ring material.
Over the course of the Grand Finale, Cassini imaged an array of Saturnian moons, from the flying saucer shaped satellite Pan, to the geyser-spouting and potentially life-harboring moon Enceladus, which, as it turns out, may have tipped onto its side following the creation of its iconic "tiger stripes."
These are just a few brief examples of the incredible discoveries made by Cassini as it closed out its 13-year stay in the Saturnian system.
Head to the gallery to see Cassini's stand-out images of 2017, as chosen by the incredible women and men that guided the spacecraft through its final year.
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