NASA has released a rather stunning view of Saturn’s north pole, taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it prepares for its impending demise.
Cassini is scheduled to dive into the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15, where it will be destroyed. This will bring an end to a hugely successful 13-year mission at Saturn.
This image of Saturn’s north pole was snapped on April 26, 2017. It was taken from a distance of 267,000 kilometers (166,000 miles) away, with about 16 kilometers (10 miles) per pixel in the image. Cassini was looking towards Saturn from the sunlit side of its rings.
What this image doesn’t reveal is the large and mysterious hexagonal cloud pattern that surrounds Saturn’s north pole. We’re not quite sure what’s causing it, although it’s possibly something to do with jets flowing around the pole, with winds keeping the shape sharp.
Saturn experienced its northern summer solstice on May 24, 2017, when the north pole received its maximum sunlight. The Sun is now descending in the northern sky of Saturn, and eventually, the north pole will experience Earth-years of darkness.
And Cassini, too, is preparing for its own downfall. As the spacecraft is running out of fuel, the decision was made to purposefully destroy it in the atmosphere of Saturn, to prevent it one day accidentally contaminating one of the moons of Saturn.
This Grand Finale phase of Cassini began on April 22, 2017, when the spacecraft used the gravitational tug of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, to send it on a five-month death dive. There will be no shortage of lamentation when the mission is over, but until then – and for years after, no doubt – we can continue to enjoy some of Cassini’s stunning images of Saturn.
"The end of Cassini's mission will be a poignant moment, but a fitting and very necessary completion of an astonishing journey," said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in a statement.
"The Grand Finale represents the culmination of a seven-year plan to use the spacecraft’s remaining resources in the most scientifically productive way possible. By safely disposing of the spacecraft in Saturn's atmosphere, we avoid any possibility Cassini could impact one of Saturn's moons somewhere down the road, keeping them pristine for future exploration."