Saturn Looks Haunted in Cassini's First Grand Finale Photos

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Good morning, Cassini! Today, at about 3:00am EDT, NASA’s Deep Space Network Goldstone Complex in California’s acquired the orbiter’s signal for the first time since it began its series of Grand Finale dives. The photos it took from the space between Saturn and its rings, which have just been released, are nothing short of breathtaking. It’s classic Cassini, making the previously impossible look easy.

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“In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare,” Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, said in a statement.

Unprocessed image of Saturn’s atmosphere, taken on April 26th. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Unprocessed image of Saturn’s atmosphere, taken on April 26th. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
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According to NASA, the gap “between the rings and the top of Saturn’s atmosphere” is roughly 1,500 miles (2,000 kilometers) wide. In the wee hours of the morning, Cassini whizzed through the space at 77,000 mph (124,000 kph), collecting all sorts of data on this unchartered territory.

“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,” Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement. “I am delighted to report that Cassini shot through the gap just as we planned and has come out the other side in excellent shape.”

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

It’s a bittersweet moment for Cassini fans, as this marks the beginning of its end. From now until September 15th, the orbiter will perform 21 more dives between Saturn and its rings. For its final act, the spacecraft will plunge itself into Saturn’s atmosphere, ending its 20-year-long mission.

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Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

We look forward to more hauntingly beautiful photos from Saturn’s atmosphere over the coming weeks; we’ll take whatever we can get until Cassini becomes a ghost itself.

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[NASA]

Space Writer, Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

Cassini begins streaking through Saturn’s atmosphere... barrelling downward trying to keep its antenna focused. After minutes of intense heat and buffeting, the probe loses its connection.

Hours later, as people are wrapping up, a signal comes back through the DSN - cassini’s signal is reaching us. Damaged and burnt, but not destroyed, somehow the probe has re-established contact.

Over the next days they manage to coax the tiny explorer’s cameras back to life - seeing what appears to be a vast plane of brownish leather-like material and various little hills with gases escaping. A giant floating creature, the size of an island, is floating in the upper reaches of the Gas Giant’s atmosphere, holding the probe aloft.

They get sensor data, and other information from the broken probe over a the next few days as the creature lazily floats along. Then the creature rolls over slightly, and the probe slides off its tough skin. As the probe falls away it manages to orient itself for a series of last pictures... showing us a giant jellyfish-like being in the clouds... before everything fades to black.

Days later... a signal is picked up again. Not of the probe - it is long gone. But along the same frequencies. It is regular, repeating. We don’t know what it says... but we will find out.

The signal is leaving Saturn... and heading towards Earth...

But that is a story that has already been told.