We're used to seeing Saturn's beautiful rings from afar, majestically hugging the gas giant's equator. But not since NASA's Cassini orbiter arrived at Saturn in 2004 have we seen the smallest-scale features that have remained below the resolution of the spacecraft's cameras for the majority of its mission.
Now, in a new series of breathtaking photographs returned by Cassini, the delicate detail in Saturn's rings have popped into view once more, revealing extremely thin grooves in the icy debris and pressure waves caused by the motion of the planet's moons. Currently in its "ring-grazing" series of orbits, these images were captured when the spacecraft came within 34,000 miles of the ring plane on Dec. 18, giving it the ability to resolve features that are the equivalent size as large buildings on Earth.
In these new images, bright streaks and dots litter the scene. Many of these are not real objects, they are in fact noise created by impacts of cosmic rays (high-energy particles) on the camera's sensors - the noise hasn't been removed via image processing to avoid accidentally deleting any real features that may look like noise.
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"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," said Cassini scientist Matthew Tiscareno, of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, Calif.
Cassini is quickly approaching the end of its 13-year mission, which is set to end in September when the spacecraft burn up in Saturn's atmosphere. But before that happens, it has commenced a series of increasingly close orbits to the ring plane and, in April, will start orbiting through the plane, giving us an unprecedented view of the Saturnian system.
"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," said Cassini Imaging Team Lead Carolyn Porco, of Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo., in a statement. "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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Scientists hope to catch a glimpse of small-scale features known as "straw" and "propellers". Propellers, that aren't immediately apparent in these latest observations, are disturbances in the ring material, creating features that can tower many kilometers above and below the ring plane. Straw is what Cassini scientists call the clumping of material seen at the outer edge of the rings.
But as each orbit brings the spacecraft closer to the ring plane, we're going to get an even better view of known features and other phenomena that we've probably never seen before.
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