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cassini spacecraft

NASA’s Cassini mission has sent back the first views from its new orbit around Saturn.

In November, Cassini spacecraft began a new phase of its mission – one that involves making a series of daredevil maneuvers 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 November 30. 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.

Image source Wikimedia

Image source Wikimedia

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.

Head of Cassini’s imaging team Carolyn Porco said: “This is it, the beginning of the end of our historic exploration of Saturn.

“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.

However, 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 2017, 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.

Cassini will make its final plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15, 2017.

NASA scientists say they witnessed what could be the birth of a new moon in the rings of Saturn.

Named Peggy, the object would become the 63rd moon in Saturn’s orbit if confirmed.

The evidence comes from a black-and-white image of the outermost ring captured by the Cassini spacecraft.

“Witnessing the birth of a tiny moon is an exciting, unexpected event,” said Linda Spilker of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Scientists noticed a bump or distortion on the edge of the ring which they believe indicates the presence of some kind of object.

Peggy would become the 63rd moon in Saturn's orbit if confirmed

Peggy would become the 63rd moon in Saturn’s orbit if confirmed (photo NASA)

It is estimated that Peggy may be about half a mile in diameter and it is almost certainly made of ice.

The disturbance in the edge of the ring is 20% brighter than its surroundings and about 750 miles long and 6 miles wide.

Details were published in the journal Icarus.

The significance of the discovery is that the image may have captured the moment of the moon’s birth amid the clouds of ice particles making up the rings.

The most obvious theory is that because the rings contain so much ice, and because many of Saturn’s moons are composed primarily of ice, the rings provide the nursery for new moons before they migrate to more distant orbits.

What happens to Peggy now is not clear. If it continues to orbit inside the rings, it runs the risk of collisions with smaller lumps of ice with the likelihood of the tiny moon disintegrating.

However, if Peggy escapes beyond the rings, it will run the gauntlet of drifting through the paths of much larger moons.

In any event, the moon’s small size means that if it does migrate beyond the rings, it will be impossible for the scientists to keep track of it.

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