The Cassini spacecraft might be no more, but as today’s ‘Image of the Day’ from NASA shows, the legacy that it leaves behind is spectacular.
This breathtaking image of Saturn was taken just a month before the spacecraft descended into the gas giant’s atmosphere.
The image shows Saturn’s enormous rings, vast swathes of ice and debris that are in places are no more than a few metres thick.
In the top right-hand corner you can make out Saturn’s moon Pandora, barely more than a single pixel in this image.
To give you some idea of the immense size of Saturn, the image was taken at a distance of almost 600,000km from the planet.
Having spent 13 years in space, Cassini was able to capture many other incredible images of Saturn, including close-ups of its many moons, the rings and even the planet’s mysterious atmosphere.
However on the 15 September, Cassini’s mission came to an end.
As the spacecraft headed down into the planet’s atmosphere it was constantly broadcasting data and images. You can actually see the raw images as their being sent to NASA here.
Launched in 1997, Cassini took a remarkable seven-years before it finally arrived at Saturn in 2007.
7 Incredible Discoveries By NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft
Cassini has been getting up close to Saturn's planet-sized moon, Titan. Taking incredible photographs and learning more about its dunes, mountains and seas of pure liquid methane (definitely not for swimming). Not to mention the 95% nitrogen atmosphere.
Just like our home planet, Saturn has powerful magnetic fields at its poles that create shimmering auroras, and for the first time Cassini was able to capture these incredible (and pretty intimidating) images of the glowing-pink Southern lights.
Not only are Saturn's poles decorated with beautiful auroras, they also have violent swirling storms with an (unusual) six-sided jet stream that creates these hexagonal weather patterns. But you don't want to get too close, as NASA found the eye of hurricanes on Saturn are 50 times wider than those on Earth.
Hyperion is the largest of Saturn's "potato-shaped" moons and is likely to be the result of a violent collision that shattered a larger object into pieces. The sponge-like appearance means it has an unusually low density for such a large object -- about half that of water - and any material that comes into contact with it gets blown off, never to return.
Pre-Cassini, scientists didn't understand why Encleadus was the brightest world in the solar system. But Cassini found it has a huge ocean of salty liquid water hidden beneath a surface of ice with exploding hydrothermal vents that send sporadic plumes of water shooting out into space. It is also one of the most promising locations for extra terrestrial life...
Saturn's two-toned moon, Lapetus, is surrounded in a cloud of reddish dust that gets swept around in orbit giving it a hellish colour. But that's not the strangest find, for the first time Cassini photographed a topographic ridge that runs along the equator. No one knows yet whether this is a mountain or a crack in the surface.
Cassini's final mission has required getting closer to Saturn than ever before, dropping from a normal altitude of 1,000,000km above to just 120,000km. Although this did require Cassini to enter a "death plunge" and sacrifice itself, it has also resulted in the most intricate images of Saturn's B rings ever recorded, clearly showing the spiral density waves.