Space

52 of Cassini’s most beautiful postcards from the outer solar system

By Sarah Fecht - March 20, 2019
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Viewing Saturn through different colored filters, Cassini created this psychedelic composition.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

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One of NASA's greatest spacecraft will call it quits on September 15, 2017. The Cassini spacecraft has made countless discoveries during its sojourn to Saturn and its surrounding moons. It has also sent back nearly 400,000 images, many of which are purely spectacular, with surely more to come during the final months of the mission as Cassini explores new territory between Saturn and its rings.

In honor of the brave spacecraft, we spent hours sifting through the deluge of images to highlight some of Cassini's best views from Saturn.

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Criss-crossed rings

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This impossible criss-cross pattern was created when a shadow of Saturn’s rings fell across the real ones.

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A close-up of Pan

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A skirt of material around its middle makes this moon look like a dumpling.

Saturn has a lot of moons—53 at last count.

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Saturn glows in false color.

ASA/JPL/University of Arizona

This image shows how heat is distributed across the gas giant and its rings.

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Many moons

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Can you spot all three moons in this picture? The brightest is the icy Enceladus. Pandora appears below Enceladus, just above the rings, and Mimas hides in the lower right.

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Blue Titan

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

Titan looks a lot like Earth in this composite image. Peering through the haze, Cassini revealed that this large moon has lakes and streams of liquid methane on its surface, making it one of the top spots to search for alien life in our solar system.

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Hey look, that's us!

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

That bright dot under Saturn’s rings is Earth, from 898 million miles away.

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Enceladus

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

It looks chilly, but Enceladus has a salty ocean on the inside that may be capable of supporting life.

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Make way

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Small moons can have a big impact. Here, the 26-mile-wide Pan cuts a 200-mile gap through Saturn's rings. It shares the road with two faint little ringlets.

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Daphnis makes waves

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The gravity of this five-mile-wide moon perturbs the orbit of the ring particles, carving ripples that gradually settle back down later.

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Another view of Daphnis

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Because the material on the inner edge of the gap (the right side) moves faster than the little moon, the waves occur in front of Daphis. The material on the outer edge of the gap moves slower, and therefore form behind Daphnis.

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Enceladus in a jetpack

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini discovered geysers shooting out of Enceladus' south pole, which may provide a window into the ocean within.

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Colorful Enceladus

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Some of the particles streaming from Enceladus’ south pole end up forming Saturn’s E ring, which is shown here—it’s the bright strip behind the moon.

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Bright rings

NASA/JPL

To make this colorful image, Cassini shot three radio wavelengths at Saturn’s rings, and the distortion of those signals revealed how material is distributed throughout the rings. Scientists translated that data into colors: red indicates a region where there are no particles smaller than two inches in diameter; regions where there are particles smaller than two inches are shown in green; blue regions contain particles smaller than a third of an inch.

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Storm king

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A colossal storm swept across Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2010 and 2011, covering 500 times the area of the largest southern hemisphere storms. It eventually wrapped around the entire planet, stretching across 2 billion square miles.

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Eyeing a storm

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

False-color mosaics captured short-term changes in Saturn’s giant storm.

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Dione

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The sun brilliantly lights up Dione’s left half, while fainter illumination reflecting off of Saturn reveals the moon’s shadowy right side.

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Groovy

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Enceladus has a groovy surface, marked by ridges, cracks, and troughs. It has relatively few craters—tectonic processes renew the crust and keep it looking young. Cassini captured this image from a distance of about 730 miles.

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Titan

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The sun glints off Titan’s northern polar seas. This moon is the only object in the solar system, besides Earth, that we know has liquid on its surface.

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Titan's surface

ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The Huygens probe eyes its landing site on Titan. After separating from Cassini, the probe landed on Titan and sent back pictures and data from its surface.

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Snow white

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s rings peek around the corner of this image of Enceladus’s icy surface.

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Hyperion

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini revealed how strange Hyperion is in 2005. Scientists still aren’t sure what gives the moon its spongey structure.

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Ice mountains

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Icy peaks stick up out of Saturn’s B ring, casting long shadows. These are some of the tallest structures in the ring system.

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Yin yang

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Cassini helped solve the mystery of why Iapetus is two-toned. Because the moon is tidally locked—meaning one side of it always faces Saturn—another side of it is constantly smacked with debris as it moves, like bugs on a windshield. That debris creates the dark side, which heats up easily, so its ice sublimates and moves over to the white side and settles down there. So the dark side keeps getting darker, and the light side keeps getting lighter, resulting in the yin yang appearance here.

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Shiny Iapetus

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Iapetus’s dark side transitions to its light side, creating an effect that looks shiny.

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Two tones

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Cassini captured the first close-up views of Iapetus in 2007. Here we see its ice-covered, bright side, and also a hint of the debris-strewn dark side.

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Ligeia Mare

NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

A false-color image highlights Titan’s lakes of methane and ethane.

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Purple rings

NASA/JPL

False colors indicate particle sizes inside the rings. Purple contains particles larger than two inches; green indicates particles smaller than two inches; and blue means particles are smaller still, at less than one third of an inch.

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Backlit Enceladus

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Another beautiful view of the geysers of Enceladus.

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Mimas

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

That’s no moon! Actually it is—it’s Saturn’s moon Mimas. But it looks like a Death Star thanks to Herschel Crater, which measures 81 miles across.

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Small moon, big shadow

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The tiny moon Pan casts a long, needlelike shadow across Saturn’s outer A ring.

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Moon dance

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Tethys soars past Saturn.

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Colorful Rhea

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A false-color view highlights Rhea’s scratches and craters.

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On speck

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The speck in the center of this image is a moonlet measuring about 1,300 feet across. Cassini scientists discovered it thanks to its long shadow.

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Catching a wave

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A wave moves across the rings, creating vertical undulations like corrugated cardboard.

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Put a ring on it

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Just a pretty picture of Saturn’s rings. The shadow of Mimas cuts across the lower left.

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Green light

NASA/JPL/ASI/University of Arizona/University of Leicester

In this false-color image, Saturn’s auroras appear in green. As on other planets, including Earth, the auroras light up when charged particles from the sun crash into its magnetosphere.

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Face time

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Dione passes in front of Saturn and its rings, forming what looks like a :neutral_face:.

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Hexed

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A giant hexagon, each side wider than Earth, sits at Saturn’s north pole. Exactly how it’s created remains a mystery.

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Yellow-bellied

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s northern hemisphere, as seen by Cassini from 1.9 million miles away.

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Backlit Saturn

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Backlit by the sun, some of Saturn’s faintest rings become apparent.

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Twinkle, twinkle little star

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

A star shines through the B ring. Fluctuating light from the star helps scientists measure the density of ice and dust particles in the ring.

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Striped Saturn

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Ring shadows paint stripes across Saturn’s surface as Titan passes beneath the ring plane. The tiny white speck above the rings is the moon Prometheus, which is just 53 miles in diameter.

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Beautiful abstraction

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This is not a work of abstract art. It’s Titan and Dione, posing in front of Saturn and her rings.

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Three-ring circus

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Titan’s haze reflects light, creating this bright circle that looks like something out of The Ring (as if Saturn needed any more rings…). Enceladus passes in front of Titan, its southern geysers just barely visible.

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Geysers

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The plumes of water shooting from the bottom of Enceladus may contain clues to the ocean within—and any tiny lifeforms that may live there.

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For scale

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Tethys (660 miles in diameter) looks tiny compared to the great gas giant. With a diameter of 72,367 miles, nine Earths could fit inside it in a straight line.

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Purple haze

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The outer layers of Titan’s thick atmosphere appear purple in this false-color image.

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Titanic

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, passes in front of the ringed planet. The bluish tint in this natural color image indicates that it’s winter in the southern hemisphere.

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Eye of the storm

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A 1,250-mile-wide vortex spins at the center of Saturn’s giant hexagon. It’s about 50 times larger than the average hurricane eye on Earth.

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Red eye

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A false-color view of the vortex at Saturn’s north pole, whose winds whip at a blistering 330 miles per hour.

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Three moons are better than one

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn has so many moons (62 at last count) that it’s not uncommon to see multiple moons in one shot. Here, Cassini captured three-in-one: Titan (the largest), Rhea (top left), and Mimas.