NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made its first ever dive through the gap between planet Saturn and its rings on April 26, going where no ship has gone before and beginning its Grand Finale.
Now, NASA has released a new video taken by the spacecraft as it swooped over Saturn during the first of its Grand Finale dives between the planet and its rings
As Cassini make its first plunge through the planet’s ring plane, one of its imaging cameras took a series of rapid-fire images. During the first Saturn Grand Finale dive, the spacecraft also captured the closest-ever images of the the planet.
The movie comprises one hour of observations as the spacecraft moved southward over Saturn. It begins with a view of the swirling vortex at the planet’s north pole, then heads past the outer boundary of the hexagon-shaped jet stream and beyond, says a NASA release.
“I was surprised to see so many sharp edges along the hexagon’s outer boundary and the eye-wall of the polar vortex,” said Kunio Sayanagi, an associate of the Cassini imaging team based at Hampton University in Virginia, who helped produce the new movie. “Something must be keeping different latitudes from mixing to maintain those edges,” he said.
NASA says toward the end of the movie, the camera frame rotates as the spacecraft reorients to point its large, saucer-shaped antenna in the direction of the spacecraft’s motion. The antenna was used as a protective shield during the crossing of Saturn’s ring plane.
As the movie frames were captured, the Cassini spacecraft’s altitude above the clouds dropped from 45,000 to 4,200 miles (72,400 to 6,700 kilometers).
“The images from the first pass were great, but we were conservative with the camera settings. We plan to make updates to our observations for a similar opportunity on June 28 that we think will result in even better views,” said Andrew Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini imaging team based at Caltech in Pasadena, California.
Cassini, which has been orbiting the Saturn planet for 13 years, studying the ringed planet and its moons in detail, is expected to culminate its mission on September 15 this year.