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Emily LakdawallaDecember 19, 2006

Saturn from above

Ever since I first read about the plans for Cassini's tour of the Saturn system I've been looking forward to the current phase of the mission. Why? Because Cassini's orbit is taking it to a viewpoint on Saturn that's never been achieved before. Actually the viewpoint is unique in two ways. First of all, Cassini's spending a lot of time behind Saturn as seen from the Sun, meaning that we're getting gorgeous crescent views of Saturn that not even the Voyager spacecraft managed and even catching a view of Saturn eclipsing the Sun. The second way in which Cassini's current view is unique is that as its orbit inclination tilts up and up, it has been capturing views of Saturn from above. That leads to the potential for a view of the globe of Saturn entirely separate from its rings, floating in the middle of the ring system like the yolk of a sunny-side-up egg.

Unfortunately, it turns out that Cassini is also traveling relatively close to Saturn these days, meaning that it would take a lot of camera images to compose the mosaic of the view that I have long been hoping to see. Lots of images mean lots of bandwidth, and I suppose that bandwidth is better spent on the science goals that Cassini went to Saturn to accomplish. But they have captured a few shots that give you a glimpse of the amazing point of view that this tilted orbit affords Cassini. Enjoy:

Saturn separated from its rings

NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI

Saturn separated from its rings
From its inclined orbit in late 2006, Cassini could look down upon Saturn and see the globe floating among its rings. This view was captured on October 30, 2006 from a high northern latitude, viewing Saturn's winter pole, sunlit crescent, and the backlit rings.

Here's a simulated view of what the whole thing would look like at the time that the above image was taken:

Saturn as seen from Cassini, October 30, 2006

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Solar System Simulator

Saturn as seen from Cassini, October 30, 2006
On October 30, 2006, Cassini had a view of the winter north pole of Saturn. Thanks to the high inclination of its orbit, Cassini could see the globe of Saturn nearly separated from its rings.

The orbit's inclination is currently about 55 degrees, and will remain between 55 and 60 degrees for the next 5 months or so before beginning to drop back down toward the ring plane again next summer.

Read more: pretty pictures, Cassini, Saturn, Saturn's rings

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Emily Lakdawalla

Solar System Specialist for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Emily Lakdawalla

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