After more than 12 years studying Saturn, its rings, and moons, NASA's Cassini spacecraft has entered the final year of its epic voyage. The conclusion of the historic scientific odyssey is planned for September 2017.
Now, the Cassini spacecraft has sent its first views of Saturn's atmosphere since beginning the latest phase of its mission. The new images show scenes from high above Saturn's northern hemisphere.
This collage of images from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows Saturn's northern hemisphere and rings as viewed with four different spectral filters. Each filter is sensitive to different wavelengths of light and reveals clouds and hazes at different altitudes. Clockwise from top left, the filters used are sensitive to violet (420 nanometers), red (648 nanometers), near-infrared (728 nanometers) and infrared (939 nanometers) light. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Dec. 2, 2016, at a distance of about 400,000 miles (640,000 kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 95 miles (153 kilometers) per pixel.
"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, Boulder, Colorado.
Cassini began its new mission phase, which will send the spacecraft just past the outer edge of the main rings, on November 30th. The next pass by the rings' outer edges is planned for December 11th.
This view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft was obtained about half a day before its first close pass by the outer edges of Saturn's main rings during its penultimate mission phase. The view shows part of the giant, hexagon-shaped jet stream around the planet's north pole. Each side of the hexagon is about as wide as Earth. A circular storm lies at the center, at the pole. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Dec. 3, 2016, at a distance of about 240,000 miles (390,000 kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 14 miles (23 kilometers) per pixel.
Cassini's final phase called the Grand Finale begins in April 2017. A close flyby of Saturn's giant moon Titan will reshape the spacecraft's orbit so that it passes through the gap between Saturn and the rings - an unexplored space only about 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) wide. During the Grand Finale, Cassini will make the closest-ever observation of the Saturn, and scientists hope to gain new insights into Saturn's interior structure.
The Grand Finale will come to an end on September 15, 2017, as Cassini dives into Saturn's atmosphere, returning data about the planet's chemical composition until its signal is lost. Friction with the atmosphere will cause the spacecraft to burn up like a meteor soon afterward.