Skip to main content

NASA's most detailed views of Saturn's rings are both research and art

Saturn is known for the beauty of its rings — but now NASA is getting an even closer look at the detail inside the planet’s iconic feature. Monday, NASA released the highest-quality views yet of Saturn’s ringlets of ice and debris, giving researchers the chance to observe details that look remarkably like abstract photography.

The close-ups are courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft, a project launched in 2004 from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. Starting in November, the Cassini’s task switched to studying the planet’s rings. The spacecraft will continue to study the planet’s ring formation until April, when it will photograph the rings from in between the planet and the orbiting ice and debris.

The latest images from the spacecraft show twice the level of detail in the rings as earlier photographs, NASA says. That closeness allows researchers to study objects as small as .3 miles — which is about the size of the tallest buildings on earth.

The new images are allowing scientists to study what they’re calling straw, or clumped ring particles, and propellers, or small “moonlets.” The straw and propellers were first recognized shortly after Cassini arrived, and although at that time the spacecraft was closer, the photographs were not as detailed.

That first pass only looked at the rings while backlit, and, to prevent blur from the planet’s movements, used shorter exposures that created more grain in the images, obscuring some of the finer details. Now, Cassani is making several passes and studying both the backlit and sunlit portions of the rings.

“As the person who planned those initial orbit-insertion ring images — which remained our most detailed views of the rings for the past 13 years — I am taken aback by how vastly improved are the details in this new collection,” said Cassini Imaging Team Lead Carolyn Porco, of Space Science Institute, in Boulder, Colorado. “How fitting it is that we should go out with the best views of Saturn’s rings we’ve ever collected.”

Next, Cassani will capture inside views of what the rings look like while orbiting between the rings and the planet. The spacecraft’s “Grand Finale” task, which involves traveling between the rings and the planet for another 22 orbits, is expected to begin at the end of April.

Editors' Recommendations

Hillary K. Grigonis
Hillary never planned on becoming a photographer—and then she was handed a camera at her first writing job and she's been…
NASA’s eight-rotor Dragonfly drone is heading to Saturn’s largest moon
nasas dragonfly drone heading to saturns largest moon nasa

New Dragonfly Mission Flying Landing Sequence Animation

NASA is sending a drone to Saturn’s largest moon in a bid to learn more about the building blocks of life, and possibly provide answers on how it all kicked off on Earth.

Read more
The grainy texture of Saturn’s rings reveals clues to their origins
saturn rings texture pia23170 hires 1

This false-color image to the right shows an infrared spectral map of Saturn's A, B and C rings, captured by Cassini's VIMS. Infrared image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/CNRS/LPG-Nantes; Saturn image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/G. Ugarkovic

New analysis of data from the Cassini mission shows that Saturn's rings are not smooth, but rather are grainy in texture. Scientists believe that tiny moons within the rings cause materials to cluster and form clumps and straw-like patterns, revealing rings which are more complex and dynamic than we realized.

Read more
Fujifilm’s most-hyped camera has just started shipping
Fujifilm's X100VI camera, released in 2024.

The latest iteration of Fujifilm’s X100 camera started shipping on Wednesday.

The X100VI is -- as the name cleverly suggests -- the sixth in the series. Early reviews have been mostly positive as the camera builds on the successes of the already impressive earlier models going all the way back to the original X100, which launched in 2011.

Read more