NASA has released the first images from Cassini's new ring-grazing orbit around Saturn, and they are some of the closest views of the gas giant yet.
The new phase of the mission began last week when the spacecraft started moving in an orbit that took it over the planet’s north pole, which is famous for its color-changing hexagonal storm. On December 2, Cassini snapped a picture of the pole from 640,000 kilometers (400,000 miles) away, less than twice from Earth to the Moon.
The image was shot in four different wavelengths, which showed the presence of different types of clouds and hazes at various altitudes over the pole.
The following day, Cassini was flying just 390,000 kilometers (240,000 miles) from Saturn, where it was able to capture an unbelievable view of the giant hexagonal jet stream.
The craft has now grazed the outer side of one of Saturn’s main rings, and it is flying over the southern hemisphere. This is the first of 20 week-long orbits that are taking the mission closer to the planet. The probe will take photographs of Saturn’s tiny satellites, the so-called shepherd moons, which are embedded in the rings and keep them stable.
In April, Cassini will move closer to Saturn, continuing to orbit and study the planet in preparation for its final dive into the planet’s atmosphere on September 15.
"This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn. 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," Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a statement.
The north pole of Saturn and its hexagonal storm in different wavelengths. Clockwise from top left: Violet, red, near-infrared, and infrared. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute