One year since last sighting Saturn, and less than eight months before reaching the planet, the cameras on NASA's Cassini spacecraft have caught another glimpse of the ringed planet, growing more detailed with time.
A natural color composite of the image is available from the Cassini Imaging Team's website at http://ciclops.org and from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA04913 .
The planet was 111 million kilometers (69 million miles) from the spacecraft when the images were taken last week, about the equivalent of three-fourths of the distance between Earth and the Sun. The image shows details in the rings and atmosphere not seen a year ago, as well as five of Saturn's icy moons.
"After more than a decade of preparation and waiting for arrival, it is satisfying to see the Saturnian moons in this approach picture," said Dr. Gerhard Neukum, an imaging team member and a professor at Free University in Berlin, Germany. "Soon we will be in orbit around Saturn to investigate these worlds in detail and to decipher their geologic history from close-up images - an exciting prospect."
Dr. Anthony DelGenio, imaging team member from NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and a specialist in atmospheric studies, said, "We can only see the general banded structure of Saturn from this distance, but we know that as we get closer those bands will break up before our eyes into smaller features - spots, storms, wave patterns that we'll be able to see in 10 times more detail than any previous observation of Saturn.
"I can't wait to dive in as we see it all unfold over the next few months. For all of us who have worked for more than a decade preparing for this mission, seeing Saturn grow larger and larger in the eyes of the Cassini cameras is a bit like the feelings children have as they come downstairs on Christmas morning to see what gifts are waiting for them under the tree," DelGenio said. "But this Christmas will last for four years."
Dr. Carolyn Porco, a planetary ring specialist and leader of the Imaging Science team, said, "For someone who was involved in the Voyager exploration of Saturn twenty-three years ago, this is turning out to be a very sentimental journey. I'm reminded of what it felt like to see Saturn's rings for the first time with Voyager, and how rich and surprising they were. The spokes in the B ring, the twisted F ring and its shepherding moons, the sheer number and diversity of ring features ....we'll be on the lookout for all these things and more over the next few months".
Dr. Wesley Huntress, former Cassini Study Scientist in the mid-1980s, Director of NASA's Solar System Exploration Division in 1990 at the inception of the Cassini mission, and presently the Director of Carnegie Institution of Washington's Geophysical Laboratory, said of the latest image, "Wow! So far away, so long to travel, so much effort to make it happen, and so worth it".
Fourteen camera-team scientists from the United States and Europe will use the two cameras on Cassini to investigate many features of Saturn, its moons and its rings. Cassini will begin a four-year prime mission in orbit around Saturn when it arrives on July 1, 2004. It will release its piggybacked Huygens probe about six months later for descent through the thick atmosphere of the moon Titan. The probe could impact in what may be a liquid methane ocean.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative mission of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington, D.C.
The Space Science Institute, home to the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations, is a non-profit organization of scientists and educators engaged in research in the areas of astrophysics, planetary science and the earth sciences, and in integrating research with education and public outreach.
Mission information is available online at http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov .
Heidi Finn (720) 974-5859
Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations
Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.