December 9, 2016 – NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has sent to Earth its first views of Saturn’s atmosphere since beginning the latest phase of its mission. The new images show scenes from high above Saturn’s northern hemisphere, including the planet’s intriguing hexagon-shaped jet stream.
Cassini began its new mission phase, called its Ring-Grazing Orbits, on November 30. Each of these weeklong orbits — 20 in all — carries the spacecraft high above Saturn’s northern hemisphere before sending it skimming past the outer edges of the planet’s main rings.
Cassini’s imaging cameras acquired these latest views on December 2 and 3, about two days before the first ring-grazing approach to the planet. Future passes will include images from near closest approach, including some of the closest-ever views of the outer rings and small moons that orbit there.
“This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn. Let these images — and those to come — remind you that we’ve lived a bold and daring adventure around the solar system’s most magnificent planet,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado.
Cassini crossed through the plane of Saturn’s rings on December 4 at 6:09 a.m. MST (8:09 a.m. EST) at a distance of approximately 57,000 miles (91,000 kilometers) above Saturn’s cloud tops. This is the approximate location of a faint, dusty ring produced by the planet’s small moons Janus and Epimetheus, and just 6,800 miles (11,000 kilometers) from the center of Saturn’s F ring.
About an hour prior to the ring-plane crossing, the spacecraft performed a short burn of its main engine that lasted about six seconds. About 30 minutes later, as it approached the ring plane, Cassini closed its canopy-like engine cover as a protective measure.
“With this small adjustment to the spacecraft’s trajectory, we’re in excellent shape to make the most of this new phase of the mission,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
few hours after the ring-plane crossing, Cassini began a complete scan across the rings with its radio science experiment to study their structure in great detail.
“It’s taken years of planning, but now that we’re finally here, the whole Cassini team is excited to begin studying the data that come from these ring-grazing orbits,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “This is a remarkable time in what’s already been a thrilling journey.”
The next pass by the rings’ outer edges is planned for December 11. The ring-grazing orbits will continue until April 22, when the last close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan will once again reshape Cassini’s flight path. With that encounter, Cassini will begin its Grand Finale, leaping over the rings and making the first of 22 plunges through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its innermost ring on April 26.
On September 15, the mission’s planned conclusion will be a final dive into Saturn’s atmosphere. During its plunge, Cassini will transmit data about the atmosphere’s composition until its signal is lost.
Launched in 1997, Cassini has been touring the Saturn system since arriving in 2004 for an up-close study of the planet, its rings and moons. Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean with indications of hydrothermal activity within the moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on another moon, Titan.
For details about Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits, visit:
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.