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Cassini Probe's Stunning Photos Show Saturn's Rings In Unprecedented Detail

Now that's a view...

31/01/2017 15:19 GMT | Updated 31/01/2017 15:20 GMT

NASA’s Cassini probe has returned the most detailed photographs of Saturn’s rings ever taken.

The craft is currently on a death-defying journey through the planet’s vast belts of rock as it nears the end of its 13 year mission.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A region in Saturn's outer B ring.

When it first arrived at the planet in 2004, Cassini edged closer to the rings than its latest position, but it captured photos on shorter exposures, limiting quality.

“As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images ― which remained our most detailed views of the rings for the past 13 years ― I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection,” said Cassini Imaging Team Lead Carolyn Porco, of Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado. “How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn’s rings we’ve ever collected.”

The rings are now thought to be made up of millions of moonlets, up to 1km in diameter.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A density wave in Saturn's A ring caused by accumulations of particles at certain distances from the planet. This feature is filled with clumpy perturbations, which researchers informally refer to as "straw." The wave itself is created by the gravity of the moons Janus and Epimetheus, which share the same orbit around Saturn.

NASA scientists are set upon ditching Cassini before it runs out of fuel, to preempt a collision with one of the planet’s 53 moons. 

There’s a slim chance that Enceladus and Titan might harbour life, and a satellite from Earth poses a major contamination risk.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A region in Saturn's outer B ring. From this view, it is clear that there are still finer details to uncover, NASA said. 
NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE

In December, Cassini returned a series of images of Saturn’s northern hemisphere, showing off its hexagonal jet stream and stormy centre.

NASA/JPL-CALTECH/SPACE SCIENCE INSTITUTE