Today is the 10th anniversary of the spacecraft Cassini’s arrival in Saturn’s system of rings and moons. But to make that 2.2-billion-mile journey from Earth, Cassini had to launch on October 15, 1997. So really it’s been 17 great years. The International Space Station and the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity all launched after Cassini did. Yet Cassini is still in working order, and still sends data and—our favorite—images back to Earth.
Data from Cassini have taught astronomers that several of Saturn’s moons have chemistry that is amenable to life. That’s expanded science’s understanding of where life could thrive in the solar system. Cassini’s instruments have also revealed more about Saturn itself, snapping images of its enormous hurricanes and sampling the composition of its rings. Just a few months ago, astronomers used Cassini data to build more evidence that the Saturnian moon Enceladus likely has a subterranean sea.
In honor of Cassini’s years of work in space, Popular Science has collected here some of our favorite Cassini-made images. In 2004, just before spacecraft reached Saturn, Popular Science interviewed Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, then with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, about the mission. She said, “These pictures are probably going to knock people’s socks off.” She was right. Click below to take a look.
This friendly fellow is Dione, one of the several moons of Saturn that scientists believe may house a subsurface sea. Scientists colored this image to approximate what it would look like to the human eye. Learn more about water on Dione.
This is Saturn’s moon Titan, and that glint is sunlight reflecting off its methane seas. Cassini captured this image in 2009.
Oh, nothing to see here, just jets of ice and water pluming out of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Learn more about Enceladus’ jets. Could there be microbes in those plumes?
Here’s a closeup of Enceladus’ ice jets.
Rhea, stop making that face. Don’t you want to look nice for Grandma? Cassini captured this image of Saturn with five of its dozens of moons in 2011. From left to right are Janus, Pandora (tucked within Saturn’s rings), Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea.
Seasons On Saturn
This is a mosaic image of Saturn, colored to approximate what it would look like to the human eye. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, is passing in front of the planet. The thin line cutting across the planet is its rings, as viewed edge-on. Below the thin line is the shadow of the rings, cast onto the surface of the planet. The colors in this image offer evidence of changing seasons on Saturn. Learn more about that here.
Here’s what Saturn looks like, from Cassini’s point of view, when backlit by the sun. This image was created from several Cassini shots, taken with different filters. Learn more about this rare image.
Rings In Infrared
Saturn’s rings, lookin’ sharp in this infrared image from June 15, 2013
This peculiar polygonal feature on Saturn’s north pole is created by the planet’s jetstream. Cassini took this image of what astronomers call “The Hexagon” in July 2013. The Hexagon was first imaged by the Voyager spacecraft in the 1980s, but Cassini has since taken ever more high resolution photos for scientists to study.
Data from Cassini’s RADAR instrument helped astronomers build this map. It shows liquid methane lakes on the surface of Saturn’s moon, Titan. Learn more about the lakes.