The Cassini Spacecraft is getting closer and closer to Saturn, providing us with some of the most spectacular views we have ever seen of the ringed planet.
Each new photo is so hotly anticipated that we want to see them as soon as NASA gets them, so they are mostly distributed in black and white, without any processing done to them yet. Luckily, there are some wonderfully talented people on the Internet who have taken the time to process the images so now we can all appreciate Saturn’s North Pole as it looks in true-color.
As reported by Discovery, astrophysicists Sophia Nasr and space enthusiast, writer, and graphic designer Jason Major both have processed the images from Cassini and they are a wonder. The center of the vortex, which is 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) across, is a striking cerulean blue, like a tropical sea.
The full storm is usually a bluish color but due to seasonal variation, it now appears golden, with only the eye of the storm in its more azure hue. This variation is due to hazes produced by the harsh sunlight, which the region is currently feeling the effect of. The planet’s northern hemisphere is currently experiencing its solstice.
The vortex seen in these incredible images is just the central part of a unique feature known as Saturn’s hexagon. This structure is a six-sided jet stream system of uncertain origin, although recent studies suggest how such a complex and turbulent atmosphere can actually make a hexagon. Apparently, eastward jet winds rotating at the same speed of the planet are to blame, with small perturbations creating the abrupt directional changes that make up the vertices.
Saturn’s hexagon was first spotted by Voyager probes in the early 1980s and has been photographed many times by Cassini, a collaboration between NASA, ESA, and the Italian Space Agency, over its 13-year mission. Yet, the exquisite details of the latest images are without equals.
Cassini is preparing itself for the last few months of its mission before it ends in September. Cassini’s swan song will actually be a swan dive, as the probe prepares itself for a fiery death by jumping inside the gas giant itself.
But there are more close passes of Saturn to come before the inevitable has to happen, which means there will be more incredible pictures of the “Lord of the Rings”. And if any of you fancy trying to color the unprocessed images yourselves, the Planetary Society has a handy guide on its website.