Watch Cassini Plunge Toward Saturn in This Astonishing NASA Video

by Monica Hunter-Hart

On April 26, NASA’s Cassini space probe took a bold dive toward the surface of Saturn, getting closer than any spacecraft had before. Scientists have already learned a lot from Cassini’s plunge, such as the fact that the gas giant’s ring gap is completely empty. That’s pretty cool, but here’s something even more astounding: You can now watch Cassini’s descent in a video made from the images it took.

That’s right, you can see what it’s like to fly toward the face of Saturn.

The photos were captured over the course of an hour as Cassini moved both toward the planet and southward over it. The first pictures are of Saturn’s whirling north pole vortex; next they show the probe moving over the edge of Saturn’s famous hexagon-shaped cloud pattern (which is wider than the diameter of two Earths, and is formed by a jet stream around the pattern’s perimeter) and further down the planet.

“I was surprised to see so many sharp edges along the hexagon’s outer boundary and the eye-wall of the polar vortex,” said Kunio Sayanagi of the Cassini imaging team in a press release. “Something must be keeping different latitudes from mixing to maintain those edges.”

Now, you may think the pixelation isn’t great, but that’s just because you’re used to footage from cameras that shoot objects at a much closer range. At the start of the video, Cassini is 45,000 miles higher than Saturn’s clouds, and even by the end it’s still 4,200 miles above them. The smallest resolvable features in the shot are 5.4 miles per pixel at the start of the video and 0.5 miles per pixel at the finish.

But Andrew Ingersoll of the Cassini team did note that the camera settings used by the space probe this time were “conservative,” and added, “We plan to make updates to our observations for a similar opportunity on June 28 that we think will result in even better views.”

So, if you thought this video was neat, just wait for the images from Cassini’s next dive through the rings in late June.

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