NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has arrived in Saturn’s neighborhood more that 10 years ago, it has been sending wonderful images and data about the planet which is famous for its rings and many moons. Before the spacecraft runs out of the fuel it final sweeps of the area and NASA send it into Saturn’s atmosphere to burn up in a fiery sendoff.
Until that final salute in September and as Cassini takes whatever measurements and other data it can during the time it has left, we can reflect on its most exciting discoveries of Saturn and its moons. Here are some of the most important images it has sent back to Earth.
Saturn has many full sized moons orbiting it. Scientists have discovered that its massive rings have tiny moons which are known as moon-lets cutting through them as they swing around the planet. The moon-lets displace material in the rings during their orbits, with their gravity creating waves in the dust that forms the rings and creating propeller shaped gaps in the rings wherever they are. Cassini got plenty of closeups of these propellers, but arguably the most powerful of its moonlet images is the strikingly clear closeup of Daphnis, a 5-mile-long moonlet streaking through the outer edges of the planet’s rings.
During its journey to the outer solar system, the Cassini spacecraft has gotten up close to Saturn’s moon Enceladus including inspecting plumes that come off the moon’s surface. This shot of the plumes backlit by the sun show them shooting off Enceladus. Cassini flew through the plumes for the first time and collected data to send back to Earth around the time this picture was taken. Over time scientists have analyzed all the data from Cassini to find that Enceladus has hydrogen, which could be an energy source for certain kinds of alien life forms.
When Cassini first encountered Saturn’s largest moon, it was able to capture views clearer than any equipment before it. It would learn much more about Titan over the years, but this first detailed image was where it all began. Since Cassini entered the moon’s neighborhood, it has collected data that indicates volcanic activity and teaches scientists about what it’s like on the surface.
Cassini once made a clever move of using Saturn to block the intense light of the sun and then snapped a photo from behind the giant planet, capturing its illuminated rings in all their glory. According to NASA, it was a view scientists had never had before. And it included some familiar faces A trained eye can detect the “pale dot of Earth” above the bright main rings as well as the moon Enceladus.