clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Photos: the most inspiring, beautiful, and historic images from the Cassini mission

Cassini may be gone, but these gorgeous Saturn photos are ours forever.

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The very last images NASA’s Cassini spacecraft took before it crashed Friday are some of its most meaningful.

Here’s what the 20-year-old spacecraft saw just before it powered down its cameras for the last time and prepared for a final plunge into Saturn’s gauzy atmosphere. It’s of the icy moon Enceladus setting behind Saturn.


Many years earlier, Cassini discovered that Enceladus has a remarkable feature: Plumes of water vapor and gas shoot out of cracks in the surface. That water means there’s a liquid ocean beneath the ice-covered surface, which may have geothermal vents like those found at the bottom of our oceans. The discovery was immense: It shot Enceladus to the top of the list of places where we could possibly find life in our solar system. It could be the site of a second genesis — where life formed, evolved, and prospered undisturbed on another world. If even a few small microbes were found in its waters, it would be one of the greatest scientific findings of all time.

This image above says farewell to Enceladus, but it also beckons; we must, someday, go back to see if there’s life there.

These are what the very best photos from the Cassini mission do: They make us contemplate our place in the universe and help us imagine what’s potentially out there in the way-out-there. Since the Cassini mission began, scientists have discovered thousands of planets outside our own solar system. Investigating the moons of Saturn (and Jupiter) helps us gain an understanding of what planets might look like across the galaxy.

Here are some of the very best, most inspiring images from the mission.

A photograph of the entire Earth

This will probably be remembered as the most famous image from the Cassini mission. It’s a picture of Earth, as seen from the dark side of Saturn. We’re just a speck of dust.

In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn's rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame.

Lakes on Titan

Saturn’s largest moon is Titan. It was discovered in 1655, but it wasn’t until Cassini and the Huygens lander that we knew how wonderful and complex a world it is. Titan is kind of like a bizarro version of Earth: It has a thick, nitrogen-dense atmosphere, where it rains down methane and other liquid hydrocarbons, which flow into amazing, earthlike features. There are rivers, lakes, mountains, and volcanoes. The following photo is shot in infrared, which cuts through the hazy upper atmosphere to reveal some surface features.


Landing on Titan

The European Space Agency–built Huygens lander hitched a ride on Cassini, detached, and actually touched down on the surface of Titan. This is what it saw: a rocky landscape about a billion miles from Earth.


Here’s Titan in orbit around Saturn.


Plumes on Enceladus

Here, water vapor escapes from vents on Enceladus.


Saturn’s hexagon

One of the most beautiful features Cassini imaged: The clouds at Saturn’s north pole form a huge hexagonal storm.


And at the very center of that hexagon is a vortex that looks like a rose.


The glorious rings

Of course, Saturn’s defining characteristic is its gorgeous rings. But they’re not just pretty to look at. Scientists believe it’s in the swirling material of the rings that new moons can form. And it might be a model environment for how the planets formed around the sun.

“These are the highest-resolution color images of any part of Saturn's rings, to date,” NASA explains
Saturn’s rings
Saturn's icy rings shine in scattered sunlight in this view, which looks toward the unilluminated northern side of the rings from about 15 degrees above the ring plane.
Cassini gazes across the icy rings of Saturn toward the icy moon Tethys, whose night side is illuminated by Saturn shine, or sunlight reflected by the planet.
A close-up of Saturn
Saturn projects a shadow on its rings.

Cassini has also spotted these “propeller” patterns in the rings. They’re made by little moonlets that form in the rings.


Saturn, backlit

Here, Cassini takes a photo of Saturn backlit by the sun. The lighting exposes the gauzy texture of the rings, and even reveals the very faint, icy outermost F-ring.

Saturn’s darkened core NASA/JPL

Pan, the ravioli-shaped moon

Even small things are surprising in the Saturn system. Cassini discovered that the small moon Pan has an odd dumpling/pierogi/ravioli/empanada/name-your-favorite-stuffed-dough-treat-shaped moon. Astronomers hadn’t seen a moon with this odd shape before.

Goodbye, Cassini

Over the past few days, NASA took a few final few shots of the planet. They’re beautiful but a bit sad. There’s no guarantee we’ll ever send a spacecraft back to Saturn.

A yellow-tinted photo of Saturn NASA/JPL

Correction: An earlier version of this post stated the Cassini mission discovered the hexagonal storm at Saturn’s North Pole. It was discovered during the Voyager mission in the 1980s.


9 ocean mysteries scientists haven’t solved yet

Down to Earth

Scientists will unleash an army of crabs to help save Florida’s dying reef


A NASA asteroid sample just landed on Earth. It holds clues about the origins of life.

View all stories in Science

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.