Space

Cassini continues to "surprise and delight" on its final Saturn jaunt

Cassini continues to "surprise...
A beautiful color enhanced look at Saturn
A beautiful color enhanced look at Saturn
View 42 Images
The south polar jets of Saturn's moon Enceladus
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The south polar jets of Saturn's moon Enceladus
The "Ring-Bow"
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The "Ring-Bow"
Saturn's icy moon Tehthys
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Saturn's icy moon Tehthys
The icy sinew of Enceladus' surface
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The icy sinew of Enceladus' surface
Saturn's moon Mimas
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Saturn's moon Mimas
Saturn's rings with its moon Dione in the upper left background
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Saturn's rings with its moon Dione in the upper left background
A trio of intriguing craters seen on Enceladus
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A trio of intriguing craters seen on Enceladus
The mysterious hexagon at Saturn's north pole
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The mysterious hexagon at Saturn's north pole
A compelling horizontal view of Saturn's rings
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A compelling horizontal view of Saturn's rings
The planet's wavy cloud patterns are visible in this view of Saturn
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The planet's wavy cloud patterns are visible in this view of Saturn
A near-infrared color mosaic compiled from several Cassini images
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A near-infrared color mosaic compiled from several Cassini images
Each side of Saturn's hexagon is about as wide as the Earth
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Each side of Saturn's hexagon is about as wide as the Earth
This false-color image highlights the patterns of Saturn's clouds
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This false-color image highlights the patterns of Saturn's clouds
The north pole of Enceladus
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The north pole of Enceladus
Another view of Saturn's north pole with the moon Mimas just a speck in the top right
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Another view of Saturn's north pole with the moon Mimas just a speck in the top right
Dawn breaks over Saturn
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Dawn breaks over Saturn
NASA amusingly dubbed this image "Hail the Hexagon"
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NASA amusingly dubbed this image "Hail the Hexagon"
The highest resolution image ever gathered of Saturn's moon Epimetheus
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The highest resolution image ever gathered of Saturn's moon Epimetheus
A gorgeous shot showing the shadow of the great planet reaching over the rings
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A gorgeous shot showing the shadow of the great planet reaching over the rings
The small dot in the center of the image is our home, Earth
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The small dot in the center of the image is our home, Earth
This mosaic combines multiple Cassini images into one view
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This mosaic combines multiple Cassini images into one view
A close up of Dione
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A close up of Dione
Jets coming off the moon Enceladus
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Jets coming off the moon Enceladus
A false-color infrared view of Saturn
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A false-color infrared view of Saturn
This image revealed a new, previously unidentified faint outer ring around Saturn
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This image revealed a new, previously unidentified faint outer ring around Saturn
Saturn's moon Dione in front of the gas giant
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Saturn's moon Dione in front of the gas giant
The false-color image highlights some of the compelling vortices on the planet
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The false-color image highlights some of the compelling vortices on the planet
Two of Saturn's moons line up perfectly for Cassini to photograph
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Two of Saturn's moons line up perfectly for Cassini to photograph
Four different infrared maps of Saturn
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Four different infrared maps of Saturn
An unexplained disruption was seen in one of Saturn's rings
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An unexplained disruption was seen in one of Saturn's rings
Another stunning look at Saturn's hexagonal pole
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Another stunning look at Saturn's hexagonal pole
Daphnis is known as the wave maker moon for its disruptions to Saturn's rings
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Daphnis is known as the wave maker moon for its disruptions to Saturn's rings
Ripples in the rings of Saturn
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Ripples in the rings of Saturn
A beautiful color enhanced look at Saturn
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A beautiful color enhanced look at Saturn
The shadows of Saturn's rings on the planet
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The shadows of Saturn's rings on the planet
This composite image highlights Saturn's giant storm seen in the top left
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This composite image highlights Saturn's giant storm seen in the top left
Enceladus immersed in one of Saturn's rings
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Enceladus immersed in one of Saturn's rings
The centre of the vortex at Saturn's north pole
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The centre of the vortex at Saturn's north pole
Mysterious, unexplained features found in Saturn's rings called "plateaus"
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Mysterious, unexplained features found in Saturn's rings called "plateaus"
Pluto, the bright dot at the centre of the image, as seen from Saturn
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Pluto, the bright dot at the centre of the image, as seen from Saturn
An interesting look at a hazy atmospheric layer on Saturn's horizon
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An interesting look at a hazy atmospheric layer on Saturn's horizon
Cassini has opened up a new window on the strange and beautiful world of Saturn
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Cassini has opened up a new window on the strange and beautiful world of Saturn

After 13 years of exciting discoveries, NASA's Cassini spacecraft is making its final orbits of Saturn. On September 15 it will commence its mission-ending plunge into the thick atmosphere of the gas giant, but recent observations are proving that Cassini still has some surprises in store.

Dubbed the "Grand Finale", this conclusive phase of Cassini's mission involves 22 dives through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-km) gap between the planet and its rings. Since it began these final dives back in April it has sent back several stunning views of Saturn's rings, including a compelling insight into "the big empty", a fascinating expanse of space between the rings and the planet.

One of the biggest new mysteries of Saturn revealed by Cassini in these final dives is that the planet's magnetic field has no discernible tilt, with data suggesting that it is surprisingly well-aligned with the planet's rotation axis. Scientists are currently perplexed at this observation, as it is generally understood that some degree of tilt is necessary for a planet to sustain its magnetic field.

"The tilt seems to be much smaller than we had previously estimated and quite challenging to explain," says Michele Dougherty, Cassini magnetometer investigation lead at Imperial College, London.

The centre of the vortex at Saturn's north pole
The centre of the vortex at Saturn's north pole

Cassini also recently gathered samples of the planet's outer atmosphere during one of its close orbital dives. As it takes its final plunges over the coming weeks the craft is set to gather data from deeper down in the planet's atmosphere, which will provide new insights into Saturn's composition.

As well as a treasure trove of new data, this "Grand Finale" plunge is delivering a torrent of new images. Most recently NASA published what it calls a "Ring-Bow" (seen below), highlighting Saturn's rings from a perspective never seen before.

The "Ring-Bow"
The "Ring-Bow"

"Cassini is performing beautifully in the final leg of its long journey," says Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "Its observations continue to surprise and delight as we squeeze out every last bit of science that we can get."

Take a look through our spectacular gallery of majestic Saturn images that Cassini has captured over the past decade.

Source: NASA

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