NASA’s Cassini spacecraft sent back its latest photo of Saturn this week and the results are stunning.
The image, posted on NASA’s website Monday, shows the view from above the dark side of Saturn. The rings are bright, reflecting the light back onto Saturn to keep it from going totally dark when the sun is on the other side.
The Cassini mission is a joint venture between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian space agency Agenzia Spaziale Italiana. Cassini is a robotic spacecraft dedicated to orbiting and analyzing Saturn and its many moons. The spacecraft was launched in 1997 and has since been able to analyze the system and help scientists gain a greater understanding of how it works. The spacecraft also brought along a probe that was dropped onto Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, in January 2005.
Cassini finished the first extension of its mission in 2008 and has been making further discoveries in a second extension that started in 2010.
But, Cassini’s days are numbered. At the end of this year, it will begin what NASA calls “a daring set of orbits called the Grand Finale.” During that time, the spacecraft will repeatedly fly above Saturn’s poles in the uppermost portion of the planet’s atmosphere. As it does this, the robotic spacecraft will fly through or near Saturn’s innermost ring 22 times. This mission, NASA says, will provide the organization with a big collection of rich and valuable information beyond what was originally planned for Cassini.
Scientists hope they will be able to measure the planet’s gravitational and magnetic fields, figure out the mass of the rings and sample the atmosphere and the ionosphere.
The mission, and Cassini itself, is expected to finish operations next year after completing those orbits around Saturn and its rings.