These Are the First Glorious Images From Cassini's Ring-Grazing Orbits

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

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.

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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.

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Illustration for article titled These Are the First Glorious Images From Cassinis Ring-Grazing Orbits

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.

Illustration for article titled These Are the First Glorious Images From Cassinis Ring-Grazing Orbits

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.

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“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.”

[NASA]

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Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.

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DISCUSSION

As a completely undeducated commentor, I suggest that the hexoganal shape is caused by the effects of Saturn’s magnetic field/gravity-well type thingy that affects the gas and particles concentrated in that bit of the planet.

Either that or god used a fucking big Allen-wrench to assemble the solar system.

See Ikea-Interstellar.com for more instructions.