If you’re confused by this image, we don’t blame you. What you’re seeing here are the rings of Saturn and the gas giant itself. But the planet’s rings are, well, rings. Why do they appear to be criss-crossing each other here?
The answer is a pretty awesome illusion, snapped by the Cassini spacecraft that’s currently in orbit around Saturn. The bulk of the image is the rings itself, while in the background is the planet Saturn. The lines going the other direction to the rings are actually the shadow of the rings on the planet, visible because the rings are semi-transparent.
That’s not the only surprising thing about this image, though. Take a look just below the middle, and you’ll spot a gap in one of the rings with a white dot in it. This gap is known as the Encke gap, and the white dot is the moon Pan (28 kilometers/17 miles across). Moons like this form gaps by cleaning out debris from the rings.
Now you see it... NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Cassini took this image from a distance of 1.9 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) from Pan on February 11, 2016, with a scale of 10 kilometers (6 miles) per pixel. The spacecraft arrived in orbit around Saturn in 2004, and since then it has provided us with incredible views and data from Saturn and its various moons, including Enceladus and Titan.
But, sadly, all good things must come to an end. On September 15 next year, the spacecraft will be sent to its death in the atmosphere of Saturn. This is because, as it runs out of fuel, NASA wants to ensure it won’t accidentally hit one of the potentially life-harboring moons and contaminate it with material from Earth.
Don’t despair too much, though, because this final death plunge will see Cassini return some groundbreaking science to Earth. It’ll be sending back data constantly until its final moments, so we’ll get incredible data from within Saturn’s rings and from its upper atmosphere as well – something we’ve never gotten before.
Until then, bask in the glory of images like these. With no other spacecraft to Saturn currently in the works, we really shouldn't take Cassini for granted.
Here's the full image in all its glory. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute