A decade in space: The most stunning pictures from NASA’s Saturn mission

NASA’s mission to explore Saturn has been running for 10 years, with the Cassini spacecraft discovering seven moons in that time.

The spacecraft has covered more than 2bn miles during its time around the ringed planet – which is the sixth planet from the Sun and has nine continuous rings.

It has landed a probe on Titan, one of the planet’s moons, sent back more than 300,000 photos, showed the rings to be active and been responsible for the production of more than 3,000 reports – as well as many other feats.  

The Cassini spacecraft was only supposed to explore the second largest planet in our solar system for four years but it has been granted three extensions since then. It is possible the device will stay active up until 2017.

The spacecraft will celebrate 10 years of exploring the planet, its rings and moons on June 30th. Here are some of our favourite images captured from the craft over the years it has been away from Earth.

39 degrees of separation

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This view of the planet rested in the middle of its rings of ice was taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it soared 39 degrees above the unilluminated side of the rings.

Nasa said: “Little light makes its way through the rings to be scattered in Cassini’s direction in this viewing geometry, making the rings appear somewhat dark compared to the reflective planet.”


The faint ring

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The sun was almost directly behind Saturn in this image and it revealed, for the first time, a faint ring of material coincident with the orbit of the small moon Pallene.

NASA said: “This viewing geometry makes microscopic, icy ring particles brighten substantially. Cassini spent nearly 12 hours in Saturn’s shadow on Sept. 15, 2006, making observations like this one.”


Waves and small particles in ring A

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Colour is used to represent information about ring particle sises based on the measured effects of three radio signals sent through the rings. Red shades show where there is a lack of particles less than five centimeters in diameter.

NASA said: “This simulated image was constructed from the measured optical depth profiles of the Cassini Division and ring A. It depicts the observed structure at about 10 kilometers (six miles) in resolution.”


Catching Saturn’s ring waves

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The false color image of two density waves in Saturn’s A ring was made by Cassini’s unltraviolet imaging tools, while it was 4m miles from the planet.

NASA said: “Bright areas indicate the denser regions of the rings. The bright bands in the left part of the image are the “peaks” of a density wave caused by gravitational stirring of the rings by Saturn’s moon, Janus. A smaller density wave in the right half of the image is produced by the moon Pandora.”


The long-lived storm

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These views of the planet show the longest electrical storm observed by the mission on the planet’s surface.

NASA said: “The view at left was created by combining images taken using red, green and blue spectral filters, and shows Saturn in colors that approximate what the human eye would see. The storm stands out with greater clarity in the sharpened, enhanced color view at right.”


Circles on Saturn

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Winds on the planet travel around 600 mph around the surface which forms distinct belts and zones, encircling the planet’s pole – as well as the famous heaxagon on the top.

The view was taken 1.3m miles from Saturn and NASA said: “These zonal winds spin off swirls and eddies, which are significant storms in their own right. This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 51 degrees above the ringplane.”


Saturn’s moon Hyperion

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This false-colour view of Hyperion, one of Saturn’s moons, shows a detailed view across the moon’s surface. The different colours could represent differences in the surface materials.

NASA said: “Hyperion has a notably reddish tint when viewed in natural color. The red color was toned down in this false-color view, and the other hues were enhanced, in order to make more subtle color variations across Hyperion’s surface more apparent.”


All images courtesy of NASA/Cassini Mission


ESA Commissions Blood Testing Device to Further Long-Term Space Flight

The European Space Agency (ESA) has commissioned the development of an advanced medical device to test astronauts’ blood and provide immediate results during manned space missions.

The device is one of a host of technologies in development that are designed to reduce reliance on Earth’s resources during missions, something that Sam Scimemi, the director of the International Space Station, has said is vital if the dream of a manned mission to Mars is to be realised.

Maintaining the health of astronauts is a particularly important part of this, as on long-term missions it will not be possible for sick astronauts to be returned to Earth in time to receive treatment.

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The device, which is being developed by Ireland-based medical device company Radisens Diagnostics under a contract worth €1m ($1.3m), will be used on a variety of manned missions as well as on the International Space Station.

ESA’s technical officer, Francois Gaubert, said: “Performing rapid analysis of astronauts’ blood samples and monitoring their physiological parameters onboard the ISS without having to download the samples from the ISS to the ground laboratories is a feature with utmost interest.”

Radisens has said that the technology will need to test for a “myriad” of health conditions and provide laboratory-grade results without any risk of biological contamination.

It will be based on an existing blood testing device that the company has in development, but will test for a far wider range of diseases and markers than is currently covered by the technology.

The company also believes that the device has potential to be used on Earth in traditional medical environments.

A blood testing device that could provide results without samples being sent to a remote laboratory would provide major cost-savings for medical providers, allowing health budgets to be spent on other areas where additional funding is sorely needed.

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Although the ESA is not as large as NASA, it is increasingly becoming a major player in the industry and has been sending astronauts into space since the 1980s.

In 2009 the agency announced the appointment of six new astronauts following a major recruitment campaign that saw applications from nearly 10,000 Europeans.

Among the selected astronauts was the ESA’s current poster boy, German-boy Alexander Gerst, pictured above.

Gerst will be embarking on an inter-agency mission to the ISS with NASA astronaut Reid Wiseman and Soyuz Commander Maxim Suraev of the Russian Federal Space Agency on 29th May.

The mission, dubbed Expedition 40/41, will see the astronauts launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan and spend 5 ½ months aboard the space station.


Featured image courtesy of ESA–S. Corvaja.

Body images courtesy NASA via ESA.