When NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made its closest-ever approach to Saturn — dipping into the never-before-explored space between the rings and the planet — it had its camera on.
Cassini was moving too fast to take color images, but it snapped a series of black-and-white photos of the planet’s upper atmosphere, capturing storms, striated ammonia clouds, and other features never before seen in such close detail.
Now NASA has released the images in video form.
Here’s what Cassini scanned.
And here’s what it saw.
Watch the full video here:
The dive was the first of 22 passes through the rings for Cassini. And it’s already yielded some intriguing data. Here’s one: There is very little dust in the space between Saturn’s rings and the planet itself. NASA scientists can “listen” to the sound of dust hitting Cassini’s instruments, and were amazed how silent the trip was. (By “listen,” I mean they convert radio frequencies captured by Cassini’s instruments into audio files. There’s no sound in the vacuum of space.)
“It was a bit disorienting — we weren’t hearing what we expected to hear,” William Kurth, a project scientist, said in a press release. “I’ve listened to our data from the first dive several times and I can probably count on my hands the number of dust particle impacts I hear.”
You can listen to that data for yourself:
The little clicks you hear are dust particles — not many. Compare that with what it “sounded” like when Cassini passed through a small ring.
The scientists don’t know why this region is so free of dust, but it does help them plan for Cassini’s future passes into this region. It means they won’t have to maneuver the spacecraft as much to shield it from dust particles, allowing it to use more of its sensors during the trip.
Cassini made its second ring pass on May 2 and is due for another one on May 9. NASA scientists think even better images are yet to come.
"The images from the first pass were great, but we were conservative with the camera settings,” Andrew Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini imaging team, said in a press statement.
Over its past 13 years in orbit, Cassini has had an amazing run studying Saturn and its moons. Here’s what the spacecraft has taught us so far — and why its final mission may be its most spectacular yet.