A ringside seat to see Saturn and her moons

 

These stunning images of Saturn and its moons were taken by the Cassini space probe which, for the first time in two years, has been able to get a good view of the planet's famous rings owing to a recent change in the spacecraft's angle of orbit. It took seven years for Cassini to travel the two billion miles to Saturn.

Since arriving in 2004, the probe has been surveying the gas giant from the advantage of its elaborate elliptical orbits. The main image on the left was taken from a distance of about 621,000 miles from Saturn and shows how the rings cast distinctive shadows on the planet's surface.

The other black-and-white photographs, taken from about 1.1 million miles away, show the moons Titan and Tethys and Saturn's elaborate ring system, which is created by the reflected light of particles of dust and debris caught up in orbit around the equator.

Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 and six months later it separated from a second probe, called Huygens, which landed successfully on Titan after a breathtaking 12-hour descent. The first images from Titan showed a world that may have looked remarkably similar to the early Earth before life evolved.

Scientists believe Titan has many similar features to Earth, such as lakes, rivers, channels, dunes, rain, snow, clouds, mountains and possibly volcanoes.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a joint enterprise between the US space agency Nasa, the European Space Agency and the Italian space agency. It is named after two famous European astronomers, Giovanni Domenico Cassini and Christiaan Huygens.

The spacecraft, launched in 1997, is currently in an extended mission expected to last until 2017.

"It has been nearly two years since Nasa's Cassini spacecraft has had views like these of Saturn's glorious rings," said a spokesman for Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "These views are possible again because Cassini has changed the angle at which it orbits Saturn and regularly passes above and below Saturn's equatorial plane."

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