NASA’s Cassini probe has returned stunning close-ups of Saturn’s atmosphere, after beginning its death defying journey through the gas giant’s iconic rings.
Half a day before making its first flyby, Cassini returned the following image, which shows the planet’s hexagonal jet stream and its stormy centre.
Over the next nine months, Cassini will repeatedly dive towards and through the vast belts of rock, as it prepares to dump itself in Saturn’s atmosphere.
NASA scientists are set upon ditching the craft before it runs out of fuel, preventing it from one day crashing into 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.
Cassini also returned a series of images of the Saturn’s northern hemisphere as viewed with four different spectral filters, which have been added to this collage:
Before it crashes out, Cassini is expected to capture more stunning photographs and a rich pool of data about the planet.
Magnetic field instrument principal investigator, Prof Michele Dougherty, told the BBC: “One of the big outstanding questions at Saturn, for example, is: we don’t know how long a day is. We have a large error. It’s 10.7 hours plus or minus 0.2 hours.
“Come and ask me afterwards but I think what we learn about the internal structure of the planet could be among the great discoveries of mission.”
The beginning of the end of the Cassini mission started last week.
Cassini has already returned some stunning photos of Saturn’s rings, but the next batch is set to be the best yet.