Saturnian Wonder

An extra post this week because I just can’t pass up the chance to point out the images coming in from Cassini right now. As you have probably heard in the news, as the Cassini mission comes to an end because of a lack of fuel, its orbit has been radically altered such that the craft is now passing through the space between Saturn and its rings.

Asides from being a super impressive feat, this has never been done before, it would have been way too risky a manoeuvre when the craft still had plenty of gas in the tank; damage to any equipment aboard could have cost years of potential data. Now, though, there is less at risk. On September 15th, Cassini will make a death plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn and, with any luck, it will transmit as much data as possible before it is lost.

For the present, it is going to make a series of passes between the planet and its ring system which should give us unprecedented pictures; the first of which came in a couple of days ago.

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech/Jason Major

At this early stage the images being returned are all black and white raw ones. Over the coming weeks, talented folk like Jason Major will add colour data from Cassini to produce fantastic images like he has in this one. This is a view of the hexagonal storm that lurks over Saturn’s north pole taken as the craft made its first dive. I’ve been meaning to look into why Saturn has this weirdly shaped storm; no doubt a blog post will follow soon.

This is a very perilous and exciting time for the Cassini mission. So far it has been an unmitigated success by any measure. The data it has sent back will undoubtedly keep many a boffin busy for decades to come. It is the breathtaking pictures that it has sent back, though, that has inspired a generation and that has given us an ever increasing intimacy with what has to be the single most beautiful object in our solar system.

Title image courtesy of NASA/JPL

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