NASA's Cassini spacecraft is giving earthlings their closest-ever views of Saturn's swirled atmosphere and its massive hurricane, beaming a trove of images and data back to Earth after the craft made its first dive between Saturn and its rings Wednesday.
Cassini is "showing us new wonders and demonstrating where our curiosity can take us if we dare," said Jim Green, director of NASA's Planetary Science Division.
The raw images are being fed into a photo stream on NASA's website, and while they lack detailed captions and annotations, they provide entrancing views of the planet's complex atmosphere.
In the maneuver that sent Cassini between Saturn and its rings, the craft went over the planet's north pole, where it captured the first high-resolution image of the mammoth storm back in 2013. The eye of the storm was measured at more than 1,000 miles wide.
The vortex is swirling inside "a large, mysterious, six-sided weather pattern known as the hexagon," NASA has said.
As of Thursday morning, more than 100 images had arrived from Saturn. Some show what look to be ethereal blips and blotches against the planet's swirling clouds. Other images tantalize with patterns of striated clouds and whorls of disturbance.
Cassini captured the images over the past 24 hours, but it couldn't send them back to Earth until early Thursday because the craft was using its 13-foot-wide antenna as a deflector shield to protect it from ice and rock particles. Right on schedule, the craft made contact with NASA's Deep Space Network at the Goldstone Complex in California's Mojave Desert just before 3 a.m. ET Thursday.
"No spacecraft has ever been this close to Saturn before. We could only rely on predictions, based on our experience with Saturn's other rings, of what we thought this gap between the rings and Saturn would be like," said Cassini Project Manager Earl Maize of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
All went according to the plan, Maize said, adding that after its dive, the craft that has now been in space for nearly 20 years "has come out the other side in excellent shape."
As we reported Wednesday, Cassini has now begun what NASA calls its Grand Finale, as it weaves its way between Saturn and its rings in a series of 22 dives that will culminate in what the agency describes as "a science-rich plunge into Saturn's atmosphere on Sept. 15."