The final phases of Cassini’s mission to and around the Saturn system are starting. And what a start it is. The first batch of images from the spacecraft’s new phase were beamed back to Earth. These so-called Ring-Grazing Orbits kicked off on November 30th. 20 of them are planned with each one lasting about a week.

Each orbit takes Cassini high above Saturn’s northern hemisphere before diving to just outside the gas giant’s main rings. Here’s the view from NASA’s hardy spacecraft two days before its first close pass by the Saturn’s main rings.

Saturn hexagon closeup

We can see a piece of Saturn’s now famous north pole hexagon. We also get a fantastic look at the cyclone spinning at the hexagon’s center. The tightly wrapped clouds at its center spin nearly twice as fast as the planet itself. Winds are thought to reach speeds of nearly 340 miles per hour.

Here’s a collage of Saturn’s north pole as Cassini was a few days away from skimming the outer rings.

Saturn northern hemisphere

“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, the team lead for Cassini’s imaging team.

Get ready for a steady diet of incredible Saturn pictures. The next set should include our closest views yet around Saturn’s outer rings and the tiny moons that call it home.

What’s next for Cassini? 19 more orbits just like this one. An animation from NASA shows the orbits.

cassini-ring-grazing-orbits

The spacecraft will approach Saturn from different angles, but each one stands out with how close Cassini swings to Saturn.

The next close pass of Saturn’s outer rings is set for December 11. And the orbits will continue until April 22.

Next spring, Cassini will conduct one final close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan. Besides taking another close look at Titan, the flyby will tweak the spacecraft’s orbit and begin its Grand Finale.

On April 26, Cassini will fly between the 1,500 mile-wide gap between the gas giant and its rings. It will do this 22 times before flying towards Saturn a final time on September 15. Then, Cassini will make its final dive in Saturn’s atmosphere where it will come to a spectacular, fiery end. But it won’t go down quietly. Cassini will transmit data about the makeup of Saturn’s atmosphere until the signal with Earth is lost.

Next September will cap a hugely successful mission that launched in 1997. While NASA focuses on Cassini’s final months, let’s take a trip back to when it all started.



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