The white oval marks the spot.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

On September 15, 2017, the Cassini spacecraft ended its valiant 13-year mission by performing a kamikaze dive into Saturnā€™s upper atmosphere. A new image released by NASA shows the exact spot where the Cassini craft was lost to us forever.

Whatā€™s particularly cool about this image is that Cassini took it just a few hours before it dove into the ringed planet (its entry point is indicated by the white oval). The spacecraft was about 394,000 miles (634,000 km) from Saturn at the time, and it shows the planetā€™s night side. The scene appears illuminated, because it was:Ā Saturnā€™s extensive ring system reflects sunlight onto the planetā€™s night side. By the time Cassini plunged into the upper atmosphere, however, this particular area had rotated into daylight.

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Cassini took the images using red, green, and blue filters, allowing NASA to show the scene in near natural colors. This is a very close approximation of the hues and tones found in the gas giantā€™s turbulent atmosphere.

That Saturnā€™s rings can illuminate the planetā€™s night side isnā€™t surprising, considering just how thick and wide they really are. We like to think of the rings as a kind of ethereal plane in orbit around the planet, but thereā€™s some serious substance to them. The rings consist of dust and rock, but they also contain a lot of water ice, making them bright and highly reflective.

Saturnā€™s ā€œpeaksā€ on the outer edge of ring B.
Image: NASA/JPL/SSI

A stunning photo taken by Cassini back in 2010 showed a 750-mile-long section spanning the outer edge of its B ring. The vertical towers, looking almost like mountains and casting an impressive shadow onto the inner rings, extend for about 1.6 miles (2.5 km) above the plane of the rings. Normal thickness is about 30 feet (10 meters). Incredibly, some areas of the ring are as much as 0.6 miles (1 km) thick. Icy particles are also known to clump together to form ā€œsolidā€ portions of Saturnā€™s rings. The rings also affect the planetā€™s weather.

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Cassini may be dead, but weā€™re still learning plenty from its historic mission.

[NASA, NASA Cassini, NASA Science]

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