What A Week It’s Been At Saturn!

This photo by Cassini was taken on April 29 between ring plane crossings. It seems no matter what angle we view Saturn, it always inspires. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft zipped between Saturn and its gossamer rings for a second time on May 2 and returned fresh, stunning photos of the solar system’s most picturesque planet. During the first crossing on April 26, scientists discovered the region was nearly empty of dust and ice particles. They expected to the probe to smack into at least some ring debris but the crossing was a walk in the park.

Cassini’s First Dive Past Saturn. Click here to watch the video full-screen on youtube.

“The region between the rings and Saturn is ‘the big empty,’ apparently,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Cassini will stay the course, while the scientists work on the mystery of why the dust level is much lower than expected.”

On May 4 after its second successful ring plane crossing Cassini snapped this image of the rings in shadow. Only a sliver of the planet (below) catches the light of the sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Cassini took this view of the planet on May 3 with only its outermost edge lit by the sun (bottom) while concentric rings of dusty-icy rocks and boulders arc above. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

That’s good news because for most of the remaining 20 passes NASA won’t have to use Cassini’s 13-foot-wide saucer-shaped main antenna as a shield its delicate instruments from dust impacts. There was some fingernail biting during the first pass because the spacecraft was out of touch with Earth for hours while it’s antenna was repurposed.

Saturn’s fuzzy G-ring photographed on May 4. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The images leading up to and during the most recent dip through the ring plane shows lots of wonderful details and perspective. I’ve also included two recordings of Cassini crossing the ring plane: the first made on April 26, when very few particles struck the spacecraft, and an earlier crossing on Dec. 18, 2016 when the spacecraft went through the faint, dusty ring that lies in the orbit shared by Saturn’s moons Janus and Epimetheus.

Cassini Crossing Saturn’s Planet-Ring Gap (April 26, 2017)

They were recorded by the Radio and Plasma Wave Science instrument on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. You can really hear the difference! The first recording is pretty quiet, but in the second, the dust particles batter the probe throughout, reaching a peak about halfway through the crossing.

Cassini Crossing a Faint Saturn Ring (Dec. 18, 2016)

I can’t help it – how ’bout a couple more photos?

Close up of Saturn’s clouds in low sunlight taken during one of the recent ring crosses. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Looking over the top of Saturn (in shadow, bottom third) into the diffuse G-ring. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech