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Cassini spaceship beams back closest photographs ever taken of Saturn

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken a trip through Saturn’s rings for the first time and sent back stunning images to Earth, hundreds of millions of miles away.

The probe has sent images through space of its journey to within 3,000 kilometres of the planet’s clouds and within 300 kilometres of its innermost ring – the closest a probe has ever been, providing an unprecedented close-up view of Saturn.

Scientists say they show part of a massive hurricane on Saturn’s surface as well as other features including a strange six-sided cloud pattern first observed over 30 years ago.

The NASA team behind the project was unsurprisingly in jubilant form. “In the grandest tradition of exploration, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has once again blazed a trail, showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn’s other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like,” said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Launched in 1997, Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004. Following its last close flyby of the large moon Titan on April 21, Cassini began what mission planners are calling its ‘Grand Finale’.

This is the first pass in a sequence of 22 weekly dives that will result in the destruction of the spacecraft by flying directly into Saturn’s atmosphere on 15 September – and end Cassini’s mission.

More information about Cassini’s Grand Finale, including images and video, is available here.


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