Last week, the Cassini spacecraft began a series of dramatic, “ring-grazing orbits” that will see it fly high over Saturn’s poles before diving perilously close to the gas giant’s rings. Now, NASA has received back the first images from this exciting chapter in Cassini’s last year of life—and they do not disappoint.
A collage of images of Saturn’s stormy north pole was captured by Cassini on December 2nd, from a distance of approximately 400,000 miles (640,000 kilometers), as the spacecraft was plunging toward the outer rim of the F-ring. The images, above and below, were taken with four different spectral filters, each of which reveals gases in different layers of Saturn’s atmosphere.
The next day, just before Cassini made its first close encounter with the F-ring, it looked back and captured this money shot of the bizarre hexagonal storm engulfing Saturn’s north. A six-sided jet stream of unknown origin, each of the hexagon’s walls is as wide as our entire planet.
As cool as these images are, they’re just the beginning. As Cassini makes many more ring-grazing dives in the weeks and months ahead, we’re going to get our first close look at some of Saturn’s tiny moons, and start to build a two dimensional profile of the rings, which are almost perfectly flat, but not quite. Just maybe, we’ll unravel the mystery of the north polar hexagon, too.
“We still don’t understand how the hexagon is maintaining its non-circular shape,” Cassini project scientist Linda Spilker told Gizmodo in an email. “It is unique in the solar system.”