On January 30, 2017, NASA released some of the closest-ever images of the outer parts of planet Saturn’s main rings. The images were taken by the Cassini spacecraft on December 18, 2016. The spacecraft is now in its “ring-grazing” orbits phase – 20 orbits that dive past the outer edge of the main ring system. The new images resolve details as small as 0.3 mile (550 meters), which is on the scale of Earth’s tallest buildings.
Some of the structures seen in recent Cassini images have not been visible at this level of detail since the spacecraft arrived at Saturn in mid-2004. At that time, fine details like straw and propellers – which are caused by clumping ring particles and small, embedded moonlets, respectively – had never been seen before.
Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits began last November and will continue until late April 2017, when Cassini begins its grand finale. During the 22 finale orbits, Cassini will repeatedly plunge through the gap between the rings and Saturn. The first finale plunge is scheduled for April 26.
Eleanor Imster has helped write and edit EarthSky since 1995. She was an integral part of the award-winning EarthSky radio series almost since it began until it ended in 2013. Today, as an EarthSky.org Editor, she helps present the science and nature stories and photos you enjoy. She and her husband live in Tennessee, where they enjoy guitar playing and singing. They have 2 grown sons.
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