Launched in 1997 and orbiting Saturn since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been instrumental in providing a wealth of information about the planet and while in the final phase of its mission, it has sent back the first image of Saturn taken during its ring-grazing orbits.
The image provides us with the first views of Saturn’s atmosphere from high above the planet’s northern hemisphere and prominent in the image is the planet’s intriguing hexagon-shaped jet stream. Cassini began the last phase of its mission on November 30 and on December 2 and 3, it captured a stunning set of images using its imaging cameras.
NASA says that these images are just the beginning of yet another phase of historic exploration of Saturn and that there are plenty of such magnificent views yet to be captured and sent by Cassini. As per the plan, Cassini will be carrying out a total of 20 ring-grazing orbits each lasting a week and during these orbits will fly high above Saturn’s northern hemisphere before skimming past the outer edges of the planet’s main rings.
As it skims past Saturn’s main rings, Cassini will be capturing some of the closest-ever views of the outer rings of the planet as well as the planet’s small moons in much greater detail. As per the schedule, Cassini will be making its next pass of the outer rings on December 11.
With 20 orbits to be completed, Cassini has its hands full till April 22. On that day it will be flying close to Saturn’s moon Titan and then begin the grand finale of its mission wherein it will be 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, 2017, Cassini will be making its final dive into Saturn’s atmosphere and during this plunge, it will be transmitting data about the atmosphere’s composition until its signal is lost.