When NASA’s Cassini spacecraft kicked off its Grand Finale in late April, it was positioned right above Saturn’s north pole. As it looked down on the ring planet, its camera snapped this image.
You’re looking at the best image of Saturn’s north pole ever captured. A huge vortex dominates the center of the image, while a slightly smaller one can be seen above it.
Cassini’s more than 13 years at Saturn helped make this image possible. Saturn’s northern summer solstice happened just one month after this image was captured. Light from the sun illuminates the vortexes seen above. But now, the sun begins to fall in Saturn’s northern sky.
Soon, Saturn’s north pole will plunge into a darkness that lasts years. Cassini won’t be around to see the sun set on the planet’s north pole, though. In 16 days and change, NASA’s hardy Saturn orbiter will fall towards Saturn for the last time. And this time, it won’t miss. Cassini’s instruments will gather as much data as possible as it enters the upper atmosphere.
As Cassini falls deeper into the thick atmosphere, it will no longer be able to keep its antenna trained on Earth. Soon after, the friction from Saturn’s atmosphere will rip the spacecraft apart, and it will burn up. While Cassini will be gone, its mission will continue for years as researchers use its data to learn more about the ringed-giant and its moons.
Saturn’s rings, from the inside
The images from Cassini are only getting more stunning. In this 21 image sequence captured on August 20th, the spacecraft’s wide-angle camera looked away from Saturn. Watch as all of Saturn’s main rings come into view.
The low viewing angle makes the rings look thinner than usual. But you can make out the grayish C ring in the foreground with the B and A ring beyond it. The F ring can also be seen.
Cassini’s immediate future
Just two orbits are left for Cassini. Orbit 21 of 22 starts in just over a day. During this one, Cassini’s imaging cameras will take another look at the haze in Titan’s atmosphere. Other instruments will watch Saturn’s north polar auroral region.
Cassini will also briefly pass through Saturn’s atmosphere. Reaction control thrusters onboard the spacecraft are ready to fire if Saturn’s atmosphere pushes harder than expected. The Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS) will directly sample Saturn’s upper atmosphere for the third time. It will measure “densities of different species of molecular hydrogen, helium and a variety of ions in the immediate vicinity of the spacecraft,” according to NASA.
September 15th will be the last time Cassini talks to Earth.
Image credits: NASA