The Cassini spacecraft has sent the first images of Saturn's atmosphere since the start of its new mission phase. The images reveal the planet's northern hemisphere as well as its unique hexagon jet stream.
The newest phase of the NASA's Cassini spacecraft began on November 30, 2016, under the name 'Ring-Grazing Orbits'. 20 such orbits have been expected to carry Cassini above the planet's northern hemisphere and past the outer edges of the main rings.
"This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn. Let these images - and those to come - remind you that we’ve lived a bold and daring adventure around the solar system’s most magnificent planet," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead at Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
Saturn's northern hemisphere and rings as viewed with four different spectral filters, sensitive to different wavelengths of light. The images reveal clouds and hazes at different altitudes. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
The latest images were taken on December 2 and 3, before the first approach to Saturn. A next pass, close to the rings outer edges is scheduled for December 11 and the ring-grazing orbits will continue until April 22, 2017. A few days after that, on April 26, Cassini will begin to end its mission, leap over the rings and make the first of 22 planned plunges through the 2 400 km (1 500 miles) wide gap between Saturn and its inner ring.
The mission is scheduled to end on September 15, after taking a final plunge through the planet's atmosphere. On its way down, the spacecraft will keep sending data about Saturn's atmosphere until its signal gets lost.
The view from the Cassini spacecraft obtained about two days before its first close pass by the outer edges of Saturn's main rings during its penultimate mission phase. Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Over the next couple of days, the images will be obtained during and near the closest approach point, which will provide the scientists with some of the closest views of the outer rings and small moon that orbits there.
The Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. So far, the spacecraft made various important discoveries, such as a global ocean indicating hydrothermal activity in the Enceladus moon or a liquid methane sea on Titan.
Featured image: Saturn's northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute