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Nine Ways Cassini Matters: No. 9

Color image of yellowish Saturn and its rings.
This false-color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft gazes toward the rings beyond Saturn's sunlit horizon.

Cassini revealed the beauty of Saturn, its rings and moons, inspiring our sense of wonder and enriching our sense of place in the cosmos.

Earthlings have cast their gaze upward at Saturn since ancient times, but it was Cassini’s decade-plus odyssey in orbit there that revealed the true splendor of what is arguably the most photogenic planet in our solar system.

The mission returned stunning views of complex, swirling features in Saturn’s atmosphere, draped by the graceful ring shadows that slowly shift with the seasons.

This false-color mosaic shows the entire hemisphere of Iapetus (1,468 kilometers, or 912 miles across) visible from Cassini on the outbound leg of its encounter with the two-toned moon in Sept. 2007.

The spacecraft also revealed the bewildering variety of Saturn’s moons and helped us see each one as a unique world in its own right. One has a noticeable ridge around its equator and a two-toned color pattern (Iapetus); one looks like the “Death Star” from Star Wars (Mimas); one looks like a sponge (Hyperion); another looks like a flying saucer (Atlas); another looks like a potato (Prometheus); another looks like a ravioli (Pan).

Cassini has shown us icy ringscapes that are at once magnificent in their sheer physical extent and exquisitely delicate in their expression of the subtle harmonies of gravity. These ringscapes mesmerize with the myriad designs embossed in them -- the changing pattern of thick and thin, ruffles that stand as high as the Rocky Mountains, icy waves generated by small moons interacting with the rings, and “streamers" and “mini-jets” created in the ribbon-thin F ring by interactions with Prometheus.

The views that have been perhaps the most awe-inspiring are panoramic scenes that encompass the entire Saturn system, including those with the planet and rings backlit, and the tiny glow of our far-off, blue home planet visible far across the gulf of outer space.

Color image of Saturn backlit by the sun.
On July 19, 2013, in an event celebrated the world over, NASA's Cassini spacecraft slipped into Saturn's shadow and turned to image the planet, seven of its moons, its inner rings -- and, in the background, our home planet, Earth.