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.

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