First photos from Cassini Saturn probe's new orbit

By Paul Rincon
Science editor, BBC News website

image copyrightNASA
image captionThe photos show the hexagon-shaped storm in Saturn's northern hemisphere

The Cassini spacecraft has sent back the first views from its new orbit around Saturn.

Last month, the Nasa probe began a new phase of its mission - one that involves making a series of daredevil manoeuvres over the next nine months.

The phase will end with Cassini being destroyed in the atmosphere of a planet it has been studying for 12 years.

The new photos show the hexagon-shaped storm in Saturn's northern hemisphere.

Cassini began what are known as its ring-grazing orbits on 30 November. Each of these week-long orbits - 20 in all - lifts the spacecraft high above Saturn's northern hemisphere before sending it hurtling past the outer edges of the planet's main rings.

Nasa said that it would release images from future passes that included some of the closest-ever views of the outer rings and small moons that orbit there.

Carolyn Porco, the head of Cassini's imaging team, commented: "This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn.

image copyrightNASA
image captionA generic photo of Saturn: Future passes will reveal some of the closest-ever images of the planet's outer rings

"Let these images - and those to come - remind you that we've lived a bold and daring adventure around the Solar System's most magnificent planet."

The destructive ending being planned for Cassini is a result of the spacecraft having nearly exhausted its fuel.

But Nasa is also concerned about the small, yet important possibility that the probe will crash into one of Saturn's moons at some point in the future.

Given that some of these bodies, such as Enceladus, are potential targets in the search for extra-terrestrial life, it has the potential to contaminate these bodies with terrestrial microbes borne on Cassini.

Starting from April, Cassini will begin its grand finale, in which it will make the first of 22 dives through the 2,400km gap between the planet and its innermost ring.

The spacecraft will make its final plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn on 15 September.

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