Hopping hurricanes! Cassini shows us Saturn up close

New images from the Grand Finale of the NASA probe's 20-year mission
saturn cassini "Look into my eye..." There's a storm brewing on Saturn, and the probe Cassini is risking it all so we can see it closer than ever before. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Back in February, we showed you brand new images of Saturn's rings. We also talked about the fact that the mission of Cassini, the NASA probe sent to the planet in 1997, was about to come to a close. NASA calls this final series of orbits "The Grand Finale."

Well, that part of the Cassini mission began last week on April 26. That was when the probe was sent on the first of its final 22 orbits—these take place in between the rings and Saturn itself. That's closer to the planet's surface than any probe has gone in history, about 3,000 kilometres (1,900 miles) above its highest clouds. (That's closer than many of the satellites that orbit Earth.)

The images of that first orbit were just released and are they ever cool! At the centre of some of these pictures are the closest-ever shots of a hurricane on the planet's north pole. That's a shot of it at the top of this post and here's another.

saturn cassini

Believe in the "hex"

If you look around the edges of this hurricane (on the far right) you might notice that they don't look perfectly circular. That's because they're not. Back in 2013, NASA released Cassini's images of this hurricane from far above the planet. These pictures showed that the storm was actually shaped like a hexagon. Here's one of those pictures.

saturn hurricane hexagon
A full colour image of Saturn's polar hurricane. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists don't know why the hurricane has such a peculiar shape, but that doesn't make it any less interesting!

Take your pick!

One of the best things about the NASA website, nasa.gov, is that they release their images (yep, pretty much all of them) to the public for free. You could spend years combing through them all: images of planets and asteroids, nebula and galaxies, ... and a few things we don't even have names for yet!

In the case of Cassini, it means you can have a look at any of nearly 200,000 pictures of Saturn, its rings, moons, and other surrounding objects. We used that to help us find this gem of Saturn's atmosphere. Look at all of the swirling clouds in its sky. So cool!

saturn cassini
These whitish blobs are suspected to be large ammonia clouds high in Saturn's atmosphere. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The black and white images are all what NASA calls "not validated or calibrated." This means that the images are raw and that many of them will get cleaned up and adjusted at a later date. NASA will often colour them, too, as with the one image above.

And then there's the fact that we've still got 21 more orbits to look forward to. Who knows what Cassini will see?

And what happens after that, you might ask? For the answer to that, have a look at this video!

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