Postcards From Cassini

After nearly 20 years in space, Cassini’s time is almost up. Here’s a look at what the spacecraft has shown us.

This article is part of our special coverage of Cassini. Listen to one of the interviews Science Friday conducted with the Cassini team and marvel at the astounding images the orbiter took of Saturn and its moons. Plus, did you know the Cassini team has their own choir? 

On September 15, 2017, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will use its remaining fuel and the gravity of a nearby moon to hurl itself into the atmosphere of Saturn, where it will burn and disintegrate like a meteor. Cassini’s fiery end—which scientists are engineering in order to ensure that the spacecraft won’t contaminate any of Saturn’s moons—will mark the conclusion of its nearly 20-year voyage through space.

[Happy birthday to Voyager.]

Cassini sailed past Saturn, Jupiter, and Venus. It revealed haunting scenes of solar storms brewing, spongy cosmic surfaces, and undetected views of Saturn’s icy rings. And throughout it all, the itinerant spacecraft sent postcards home, providing scientists and the public with some of our best images of the outer solar system.

Here’s a highlight reel from Cassini’s journey.

December 2000: Jupiter Goes To The Movies

In Cassini’s first color movie clip of Jupiter, huge oval storms bustle against orange and white stripes. The clip, which spans 24 rotations of the planet between October 31 and November 9, 2000, shows what it would look like to peel the entire globe of Jupiter, stretch it out on a wall into the form of a rectangular map, and watch its atmosphere evolve with time. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

[Jupiter is ready for its close-up.]

June 2004: A Centaur In Space

Phoebe is the largest of Saturn’s outer or “irregular” moons, and scientists often say it is the most intriguing. It is about 16 times smaller than Earth’s moon, and some scientists believe it could be a Centaur, or a body from the Kuiper Belt that migrated into the inner solar system. Plus, Phoebe orbits in the opposite direction of Saturn’s other moons. Photo by Kevin Gill/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

September 2005: Hyperion Shocks Cassini

Cassini’s encounter with Saturn’s moon Hyperion gave the spacecraft quite a shock: one of about 200 volts. Cassini detected a strong electrostatic charge on Hyperion’s surface—a first confirmed detection for any solar body other than Earth’s moon—and the spacecraft was briefly doused in a beam of electrons radiating from the moon’s surface. This false-color photo of Hyperion reveals the moon’s porous and icy surface. Photo by European Space Agency/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

[How the moon lost its magnetism.]

September 2006: Saturn’s Rings, As Never Seen Before

With Saturn suspended in the blackness of space and sheltering Cassini from the sun, images from the spacecraft revealed the planet’s previously unknown faint rings. This panoramic view was compiled from 165 images captured by Cassini over the course of three hours. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

August 2008: Enceladus Is Ready For Its Close-Up

During its first close flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, Cassini skirted the body at a distance of about 730 miles. It was the closest ever by any spacecraft. Enceladus’ icy surface, which visually resembles freshly fallen snow, is one of the most reflective bodies in the solar system. Photo by Kevin Gill/flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

[Enceladus could become a top candidate for life.]

February 2010: Jupiter is Red, Earth Is Blue. Here’s The Odysseus Crater, From A Valentine’s Day View.

The Odysseus Crater, which is 280 miles across, stretches across a northern expanse of Saturn’s moon Tethys. This view was captured on Valentine’s Day from about 111,000 miles away. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

[Looking for some more geeky valentines? We’ve got you covered.]

February 2011:  Saturn Chases Its Own Tail

A prodigious storm churning across Saturn catches up with itself as its tail (the bluish clouds on the left) wraps around the planet to meet the head. The storm is the largest and most powerful ever observed on Saturn. In order to create this natural color view, images using red, green, and blue spectral filters were combined. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

December 2011: Two Moons Are Better Than One

Saturn’s largest and second largest moons, Titan and Rhea, appear to be stacked on top of each other in this true-color scene. Notice the cratered surface of icy Rhea against Titan’s hazy atmosphere. The view was acquired at about 810,000 miles from Rhea, and roughly 1.2 million miles from Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

[Titan could have the right chemical conditions to create precursors to life.]

November 2012: A Storm Brews On Saturn

Cassini transmitted views of a massive hurricane swirling around Saturn’s north pole. In this false-color image, the spinning vortex resembles a deep red rose of giant proportions and striking visual similarity to hurricanes here on Earth. Scientists estimate the eye of the storm is about 1,250 miles wide (about 20 times the size of the average hurricane eye on Earth) with winds of 330mph. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

October 2013: Hello There, Saturn

Cassini’s imaging science subsystem obtained 36 images in three color filters, which combined to make this mosaic. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

July 2013: Earth Says “Cheese” (Again)

In only the third portrait ever taken of Earth, Saturn’s rings blaze in the foreground, while our humble home glows in the abyss, nearly 900 million miles away. The image combines pictures taken by the Cassini spacecraft that used red, green, and blue spectral filters. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

June 2017: The Staggering Structure Of Saturn’s Rings

This wave structure here results from the same process that spawns spiral galaxies. At first glance, it appears that the lower-right of the image is closer to the camera than the upper-left. But that’s an illusion created by the mechanics of how the wave propagates. The lower-right and upper-left of the image are the same distance from the camera; it’s just that the wavelength of the density wave is shorter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Meet the Writer

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosted Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

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