Cassini spacecraft is in its final year of mission and as is currently in its ring-grazing orbits the spacecraft has beamed back a stunning image of Saturn’s north pole basking in the Sun.
Cassini was launched in 1997 and after seven years of journey reached the ringed planet and started orbiting Saturn in 2004. Ever since that year the spacecraft has returned to us wealth of information about the planet as well as its moons – data that has been instrumental in a number of discoveries over the last decade.
The spacecraft began its ring-grazing orbits at the end of November and giving us a glimpse of what’s in store during these orbits, Cassini has beamed back to Earth the first views of Saturn’s atmosphere from high above the planet’s northern hemisphere. The image is stunningly beautiful and shows the planet’s north pole and prominent in the image is the planet’s intriguing hexagon-shaped jet stream. The images were captured on December 2 and 3.
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.