Saturnian Swan Song

Saturn. Truly, one of the most beautiful objects known to man. We’re lucky to have something in our solar system that is both so wonderful to look at and so scientifically informative.

Twenty years ago we launched the Cassini-Huygens probe. After seven long years of space travel it became our first object in orbit of Saturn. Six months into the mission the Huygens part of the craft studied the moon Titan, even descending down through the yellowy brown clouds to touchdown on the surface, broadcasting pictures the whole way down.

PIA08118
The mountains of Titan as Huygens descended in 2005

The star of the show, though, has been Cassini itself. Initially, the mission was due to last for four years, but NASA extended it twice and now, thirteen years later, its time is drawing to a close as the fuel supply dwindles.

The images returned have given us enormous insights into planet and moon formation but, asides from that, they have just been breathtakingly exquisite. As the mission winds down it might be reasonable to expect that so would the flow of data and imagery, but far from it. For the past few months Cassini has altered its orbit such that it has been diving between the rings and the surface of the planet, giving us a totally new perspective on this mesmerising planet. Previously, this manoeuvre was considered to risky to perform, but as the life of the craft draws to an end there is nothing to lose and lots to be gained.

The finale of Cassini’s long and illustrious career will be a dive into the atmosphere of the planet itself. One of the major discoveries of the mission were the conditions favourable for life on Enceladus and possibly even Titan, as hostile as it seems to us. We mustn’t risk Cassini crashing into these worlds and potentially contaminating their ecosystems with any material from earth that may have clung on for all these years. Hence, this Friday 15th September, Cassini will plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn where it will be crushed and destroyed; it will, though, transmit data for as long as it can as it goes.

In this post I’m going to show some of my personal favourite pictures from Cassini.

rings
This is the highest resolution colour image of Saturn’s rings, part of the B Ring.
enceladus
Enceladus. This image clearly shows that the surface of the moon is active and mobile, clues that there is a liquid ocean hidden beneath.
storm
The hexagonal storm on Saturn’s north pole has been raging for decades, perhaps centuries.
ring encel
The rings shown nearly side on with Enceladus in the background
daphnis
The tiny moon Daphnis orbiting within the rings and causes ripples as it goes

There are hundreds more to choose from, take a look for yourself here.

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