See Saturn’s Icy Rings Closer Than Ever Before

Cassini has beamed back stunning close-ups of the planet’s icy ring system.

For the past 13 years NASA’s prolific Cassini mission has been exploring the Saturn system, bringing a string of remarkable discoveries about its rings and the surprisingly Earth-like moon Titan.

This year the mission is set for a spectacular finale in September, when the spacecraft will plunge into the atmosphere of the gas giant. Right now Cassini has entered a series of ring-grazing orbits, travelling around the planet in ellipses that take it swooping through Saturn’s rings.

These orbits are allowing scientists to see close-ups of the rings’ icy debris in unprecedented detail—twice as high than before. From a distance of some 50 thousand kilometres, the probe captured several shots of features that scientists have been eagerly anticipating.

IMAGE COURTESY NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The photo above shows a region in Saturn’s outer B ring—on the left-hand side you can see the ‘gravitational resonance’ of particles in the ring perturbed by Saturn’s moon Mimas.

What look like specks and scratches on the right are informally referred to as “straw,” and researchers think this could be temporary clumping of particles in the rings. They look like streaks because the image was taken at a fairly long exposure.

The scale of the new images is dazzling, too—each pixel represents 360 metres across. As Cassini continues to graze the rings this year, it will catch more glimpses of the same regions at different exposures.

"These close views represent the opening of an entirely new window onto Saturn’s rings, and over the next few months we look forward to even more exciting data as we train our cameras on other parts of the rings closer to the planet," says Cassini scientist Matthew Tiscareno.

This image shows a region in Saturn's outer B ring. Researchers have yet to determine what generated the rich structure seen in this view, but they hope detailed images like this will help them unravel the mystery.
IMAGE COURTESY NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This image shows a region in Saturn's A ring. The view contains many small, bright blemishes due to cosmic rays and charged particle radiation near the planet. You can also see belts of “propellers”—bright, narrow, propeller-shaped disturbances in the ring produced by the gravity of unseen embedded moonlets.
IMAGE COURTESY NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

"As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images—which remained our most detailed views of the rings for the past 13 years—I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection," says Cassini Imaging Team Lead Carolyn Porco.

"How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn's rings we've ever collected."

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