Cassini shoots through the gap between Saturn and its rings, returning the closest views ever of the planet

By Tom Yulsman | April 27, 2017 5:36 am

This unprocessed image acquired by the Cassini spacecraft is the closest view ever of the giant hurricane that swirls around Saturn’s north pole. It was captured during Cassini’s first Grand Finale dive past the planet on April 26, 2017. (Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.)

On the first of 22 scheduled dives between Saturn and its innermost rings yesterday, Cassini zoomed at 77,000 miles per hour to within 1,900 miles of the planet’s cloud tops — and emerged intact.

After re-establishing contact with ground controllers very early Thursday morning, the spacecraft began returning the closest views yet of the gaseous planet’s atmosphere.

The unprocessed image above was acquired toward the start of the dive at 7:49 a.m. on April 26, 2017. It shows the behemoth eye of a hurricane swirling at Saturn’s north pole. About 1,200 miles across, the persistent feature is about 20 times larger than the average hurricane eye on Earth.

In a statement released by NASA, the mission’s manager was ebullient:

“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,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “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.”

Here’s another raw, unprocessed view:

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This image appears to show closeup detail of Saturn’s cloud tops near the edge of the hurricane eye.

Cassini’s first successful dive is part of what NASA is calling the “Grand Finale.”

SEE ALSO: Going boldly where no spacecraft has gone before—on a dive between Saturn’s rings and the planet itself

From NASA’s statement:

During this final chapter, Cassini loops Saturn approximately once per week, making a total of 22 dives between the rings and the planet. Data from this first dive will help engineers understand if and how they will need to protect the spacecraft on its future ring-plane crossings. The spacecraft is on a trajectory that will eventually plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere — and end Cassini’s mission — on Sept. 15, 2017.

  • Paul Evans

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ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.


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