NASA has released fascinating footage of Saturn up close, shot from the Cassini spacecraft during the first of its "Grand Finale" dives between the planet and its rings on April 26.
The full footage goes for one hour, and begins with a view of the swirling vortex at the planet's north pole, then heads South past the outer boundary of the hexagon-shaped jet stream and beyond.
"I was surprised to see so many sharp edges along the hexagon's outer boundary and the eye-wall of the polar vortex," said Kunio Sayanagi, an associate of the Cassini imaging team based at Hampton University in Virginia, who helped produce the new footage. "Something must be keeping different latitudes from mixing to maintain those edges," he said.
Toward the end of the footage, the camera frame rotates as the spacecraft reorients to point its large, saucer-shaped antenna in the direction of the spacecraft's motion. The antenna was used as a protective shield during the crossing of Saturn's ring plane.
As the film frames were captured, the Cassini spacecraft's altitude above the clouds dropped from 72,400 to 6,700 kilometers. As this occurred, the smallest resolvable features in the atmosphere changed from 8.7 kilometers per pixel to 810 meters per pixel.
"The images from the first pass were great, but we were conservative with the camera settings. We plan to make updates to our observations for a similar opportunity on June 28 that we think will result in even better views," said Andrew Ingersoll, a member of the Cassini imaging team based at Caltech in Pasadena, California.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL is a division of the Caltech in Pasadena. The Cassini imaging operations center is based at Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.